Making Sense of the World
Author: Steve Couch Keywords:
Grief, God's existence, suffering, searching, death
Film title: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Director: Stephen Daldry
Screenplay: Eric Roth, based on the book by Jonathan Safran Foer
Starring: Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, John Goodman, Thomas Horn, Max von Sydow
Distributor: Warner Bros. (USA/UK)
Cinema Release Date: 25 December 2011 (USA); 17 February 2012 (UK)
Certificate: PG-13 (USA); 12A (UK) Contains infrequent strong language and discriminatory terms
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Warning: This article contains plot spoilers
The world can be a terrible, fearful place. It certainly seems to be that way for Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), an 11-year-old New York boy who may well be somewhere on the spectrum for Aspergerís syndrome (the tests were Ďinconclusiveí, says Oskar). Oskarís difficulties in socialising and getting out into the world are intensified when his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), is killed while visiting the World Trade Center for a business meeting on 11 September 2001. As a result of the terror attack, the list of things that frighten Oskar grows considerably. He tells us that now he is afraid of public transportation, elevators, old people, running people, airplanes, tall things, things you can get stuck in, loud things, screaming, crying, people with bad teeth, bags without owners, shoes without owners, children without parents, ringing things, smoking things, people eating meat, people looking up, towers, tunnels, speeding things, loud things, things with lights, things with wings, and bridges. Itís clear that life for Oskar is far from straightforward.
At the beginning of the film we see Oskar at his fatherís funeral, and his response isnít an obviously emotional one. Oskar complains that the funeral doesnít make sense. Why are they burying an empty coffin? Shouldnít they have at least put some of his stuff, his shoes, maybe, in the box? Itís a curious response, but it shows us that for Oskar the world has to add up. While the film doesnít directly address Oskarís attitude to spiritual issues (Jonathan Safran Foerís novel has more time for this), itís clear that Oskar wants to live in a world where everything can be pinned down, labelled and put in its proper place. As he says himself, ĎI donít believe in miracles.í
Oskarís search for understanding takes the form of a vast treasure hunt Ė the kind that his father used to set him as a way of helping him overcome his condition. Oskar finds a key in his dadís belongings and becomes convinced that if he can find the lock it fits, he will encounter a message of some kind from his father. For such a rational boy, itís a huge, illogical supposition, but it enables him to channel his grief and emotions into something tangible. Oskar compares his relationship with his departed father to what would happen if the sun were to explode. For eight minutes, we would still enjoy its heat and take comfort from the warmth. For Oskar, the treasure hunt is his way of prolonging his last Ďeight minutesí with his father.
If Oskarís treasure hunt is a way for him to make sense of what has happened to his family, the film perhaps asks questions about how we make sense of what happened to western society on what Oskar calls Ďthe worst dayí. It also warns us not to expect easy answers Ė in a flashback scene, Oskar gets frustrated with his fatherís refusal to tell him if heís on the right track with one of their treasure hunts. ĎIf you donít tell me, how can I ever be right?í he asks. His wise father replies, ĎAnother way of looking at it is, how can you ever be wrong?í Thomas Schell also explains to Oskarís mother (Sandra Bullock) that, ĎIf things were easy to find, they wouldnít be worth finding.í
Fittingly, itís hard to find an answer in the film, but it seems to point us in the direction of shared experience. In his search for the lost lock, Oskar initially sets out to treat each person he meets as, Ďa number in an extremely complicated equation.í What he discovers is that, ĎPeople are more like letters than numbers Ė they want to become stories and those stories have to be shared.í Perhaps the film suggests that, to understand the world we have to do more than just analyse and label it. The scientific approach is valuable, but real understanding only comes with experience, and shared experience at that.
Oskar ultimately finds the lock for his mysterious key, and is devastated to learn that it has almost nothing to do with his father. In a vital scene, Oskarís mother reveals that she has known about his secret treasure hunt all along. She found Oskarís elaborate record-keeping system and worked out where he planned to go each day. More than that, she went ahead of him to talk to the people he was going to meet, explaining what Oskar was doing and asking them to help him. Despite her fears as he explored New York, Linda explains that, ĎI knew you had to go make sense of things, and I got to go with you.í
The questions of how to make sense of the world after 9/11, of where to find God in the tragedies of that day, donít receive a simple, straightforward answer in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. By focusing the tragedy of that day into one boyís experience, the film allows us to see that the only way to move forward is to work through those experiences with the help of other people. The role of Oskarís mother, waiting and worrying as she lets her son do what he has to do, suggests that the lack of easy answers doesnít necessarily mean that God isnít there or that he doesnít care about his creation. Perhaps, like Linda, heís an unseen helper in our search, waiting for the right moment to reveal that heís been with us all along.
 Aspergerís syndrome is a form of autism. Like people with other spectrum disorders, individuals will display the symptoms in a variety of different ways and to different degrees. Typically, someone on the Aspergerís spectrum will have difficulties in social communication, interaction and imagination. They are typically of average or above-average intelligence, and do not have the same learning difficulties associated with some other autistic disorders, but may well be dyslexic or dispraxic. For more information about Aspergerís syndrome, see the National Autistic Society website.
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Author: Steve Couch
© Copyright: Steve Couch 2012
Unless stated otherwise, Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation (NLT) copyright © 1996, 2004 by Tyndale Charitable Trust. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers.