Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Discussion Guide
Author: Steve Couch Keywords:
Grief, God's existence, suffering, searching, guilt
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
Buy Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close from Amazon.co.uk or from Amazon.com
Oskar Schell is an eleven-year-old boy. He lives in New York and is possibly somewhere on the autistic spectrum. To help him overcome his difficulties with social contact, Oskar’s father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), organises reconnaissance expeditions for Oskar. After Thomas is killed in the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11, Oskar finds a mysterious key in his father’s belongings and decides to organise his own expedition to find the lock that it fits.
Oskar’s search takes him all over New York, meeting various people with the surname Black (the word written on the envelope that contained the key). He sees his search as a way of prolonging his active relationship with his father. He keeps his activities hidden from his mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock), whose relationship with Oskar suffers in the aftermath of Thomas’s death.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has had a polarised critical reception. While some critics have praised Daldry’s film as moving and thoughtful, others have seen it as a blatant attempt to exploit the events of 9/11, and a cynical stab at Oscar glory. British director Stephen Daldry was not surprised by the mixed response:
I always knew the film would polarise people, that there would be a certain divisiveness about it, and that was fine. People have got very angry about whether this is the right film to be made about 9/11.
The film uses one troubled, grieving eleven-year-old as the focal point for an exploration of a society in shock. While we watch Oskar’s attempts to make sense of his father’s death, we are invited to reflect on what it means to live in the shadow of the attacks on the Twin Towers. Inevitably, it’s a subject that remains raw and difficult for many. Daldry himself concedes that some people will feel that it’s ‘not okay’ to tell this particular story of 9/11. Nevertheless, he believes in the importance of artists returning to the events of what Oskar calls ‘the worst day’:
Personally, I think there should be more stories told and we should discuss this cataclysmic event that has changed the landscape of the world forever and continues to change; people die in its name all over the world. We should keep talking about it.
The film may not be to everyone’s taste, but it remains a legitimate attempt to talk intelligently about grief, tragedy and loss on a personal and international scale. Even before his father’s death, Oskar’s family bears emotional wounds from historical events. His grandfather survived the Dresden bombings, but was so disturbed by survivor guilt that he withdrew from his own family, leaving Oskar’s father Thomas without a father of his own. The mysterious ‘renter’ who comes to lodge with Oskar’s grandmother is rendered mute by some unspoken tragedy in his own life. This is more than just a lazy attempt to exploit 9/11. It’s a thoughtful treatment of the dynamic between major events in human history and ordinary individuals who are caught up in them. While not necessarily answering the question ‘Why?’, it helps to ask how we can work through such experiences and rebuild lives on the other side of them.
Questions for discussion
Did you enjoy the film? What reasons can you see for your response? Do you see it as an exploitative and inappropriate response to 9/11, a legitimate and thoughtful treatment of suffering, or somewhere in between?
The film opens with a man falling through the air and Oskar’s thoughts about death and funerals. How did Oskar’s idea of an underground skyscraper for the dead make you feel?
Oskar says that 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. What do you think Oskar’s anxieties represent in the film? To what extent are they intended as a comment on Western society post 9/11?
How important is the role of Oskar’s grandfather (Max Von Sydow), a survivor of a previous generation’s tragedy, in what the film has to offer in response to the attacks on the World Trade Center?
‘Now no one will ever have to listen to them, like I did. Just like nothing ever happened.’ – Oskar
Why does Oskar hide the answering machine with his father’s final messages? Have you ever tried to keep yourself or others from painful memories and experiences? What were the consequences of that?
Why does Oskar need to ask for forgiveness from William Black (Jeffrey Wright)? When William – who had no connection to Thomas or his family – forgives Oskar for not telling anyone that he didn’t answer the phone, why does Oskar say, ‘I can’t tell you how much better that makes me feel’?
‘The search for the sixth borough was the greatest expedition ever.’ – Oskar
What do you think the sixth borough represents in the film? What does it represent to Oskar?
Oskar: Was there really a sixth borough?
Thomas: Well, as with anything, if you really want to believe you can find reasons to.
What view does Thomas seem to have of ‘belief’? How does this relate to your own view?
Oskar: But if you don’t tell me [if I’m on the right track], how can I ever be right?
Thomas: Another way of looking at it is, how can you ever be wrong?
Can you define Oskar’s and his father’s different approaches to searching for truth? Whose do you think is better? Is one of those approaches always better in all circumstances, or do they each apply differently at different times?
Oskar starts by seeing people as ‘a number in an extremely complex equation’, but then decides that they are more like letters than numbers, needing to be made into stories. Which point of view do you think is more perceptive? To what extent are stories important to the human experience?
Oskar talks about the way that the sun would continue to provide light and warmth for Earth for eight minutes after its destruction, using this image to describe his relationship with his father after his death. Why does he seek to ‘stretch my eight minutes with him’? In what ways is this aspect of his grieving process either helpful or unhelpful for him?
Oskar describes his hunt for the missing lock as bringing him closer to his father, but taking him further away from his mother. How does her revelation towards the end of the film change Oskar’s understanding of this?
Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel is more explicit than the film in having Oskar wrestle with the theological implications of 9/11. To what extent does the film address the question of God’s place in times of suffering?
Thomas Schell used to tell Oskar that, ‘the truth will set you free.’ Read John 8:31–36. To what extent does the film’s use of this phrase remain faithful to the meaning that Jesus gave it? What are the implications of the phrase in each context?
‘There’s not an answer for everything.’ – Linda Schell
‘If things were easy to find, they wouldn’t be worth finding.’ – Thomas Schell
Does Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close offer any answers, easy or otherwise, to the big questions it poses? How satisfying did you find these answers, or the lack thereof?
See also the Culturewatch discussion guide based on the book by Jonathan Safran Foer.
Related articles/study guides:
Author: Steve Couch
© Copyright: Steve Couch 2012
Opinions expressed in CultureWatch articles are those of the author, and are not necessarily
representative of the views of Damaris Trust.
© Damaris Trust, 1997-2004. Click
here for information about republishing copyright material.
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.