9/11 is everywhere and nowhere in Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: it wants desperately to be an Important Movie about 9/11, but it can't see it as anything other than an inciting incident to an otherwise unremarkable melodrama. (This should be no surprise, coming as the film does from the director of The Reader, in which the Holocaust was used as a MacGuffin.) In Extremely Loud, 9/11 serves as a plot point, a convenient way of dispensing with little Oskar Schell’s father so that Oskar can embark on a mission to solve the mystery of a key he finds in his father’s closet, encounter a whole host of magical non-white people (!), reunite an estranged married couple (!!), and stumble upon his long-lost grandfather (!!!). As far as the film is concerned, 9/11 happened so that an elaborate set of coincidences and chance encounters could be set into motion, as a consequence of which husbands reconcile with wives and sons make peace with absent fathers.
The more I think about the film, the crueler its tricks seem. Just as Oskar obsessively replays answering-machine messages left by his father moments before the towers fell (Oskar pinches his skin over and over again while listening to them), Extremely Loud repeatedly stages the morning of September 11th like a primal scene. But it does so for no other reason than to put our emotions through the wringer. The wrenching power of these scenes isn’t any credit to the film; they’re nothing but triggers, ways of touching off our memories of that morning and of the feelings of grief and helplessness that followed in its wake. Watching this movie and sobbing is as masochistic an act as Oskar pinching himself—and if you’re resistant to its manipulation it can feel like he’s reaching through the screen and pinching you, too.
Such are the film’s ambitions that it’s not even content to deliver standard-grade scenes of suffering. It also has to stylize its victims in such a way that they become aestheticized, cool. Oskar works through his grief in the quirkiest, most ingeniously devised ways (watching him process it in more familiar ways just wouldn’t be edgy enough). His sensitivities more subtly honed than those of ordinary kids, the hyper-intelligent Oskar processes trauma fashionably, as when he makes an elaborate hand-bound scrapbook of his cross-town adventures that looks like it was designed by the editors of McSweeney’s, or by one of Wes Anderson’s wunderkinder. (With his fashionably off-beat tastes, social awkwardness, emotional volatility, condescending attitude, encyclopedic knowledge of obscure things, and fetish for trendy-nerdy stuff like old maps and vintage cameras, Oskar is practically a hipster in training.) Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close can’t even stop at plain old sentimentality in its rendering of the fallout from 9/11—it has to make it precious, too.