NEW YORK — Emotions run high in "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," the boldest cinematic tackling of Sept. 11 yet.
It's a project fraught with obvious peril, with pitfalls of sentimentality, exploitation or, simply, audience reluctance. The source material, Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 book, is far from normal Hollywood stuff. One of the first novels to take up the tragedy, it's inherently literary and experimental in its fractured storytelling, occasionally drifting by with just a few words on a page.
But the film, directed by Stephen Daldry ("The Hours," ''The Reader") has opted to go for the jugular: to dive straight into grief and loss; to face the stark images of that day, and, hopefully, to emerge on the other side with healing and release.
"Some people might find the wound too big and that they can't go there — and they shouldn't go there," says Daldry. "Some people will find it cathartic. I had to follow my own instincts on it."
"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" is about an uncommonly bright 11-year-old boy, possibly with Asperger syndrome, named Oskar (Thomas Horn). A year after losing his father (Tom Hanks) on what he only calls "the worst day," Oskar tries to keep his memory of his father alive by searching across New York City for the lock of a mysterious key. His mother (Sandra Bullock) is seemingly left out of his search, but joining him is his grandmother's tenant and very possibly his grandfather (Max von Sydow), a speechless and mysterious old man.
Oskar's journey leads him irrevocably back to "the worst day," which, in flashbacks, is seen in the minute detail of everyday life, in heartbreaking phone calls from his father and in the most searing visuals. Depicted is the full panorama of the smoking towers in a perfect blue sky, and, in nightmare recollection, people plummeting to the ground.
"There was a big discussion in my own head about, 'Do I really want to see the Twin Towers at all?'" says Daldry. "There was a choice about, 'Do I want to see what happened to Tom Hanks?' I went, 'I literally cannot do that.' The idea of building an office, the Windows of the World — I just couldn't do it."
Making the film — which Daldry can only summarize as "a challenging emotional experience" — has clearly left a mark on the British director and those that worked on it. Recalling a recent advance screening where a survivor from the South Tower stood up and spoke afterward, Daldry cuts off and breaks for a smoke. There have been many rich, story-filled meetings already with children of parents killed on 9/11, with firefighters and with people who have lost a loved one.
The film is still fresh for Daldry. The seven-month production ended earlier this year, but just 10 days before a recent interview, he was still shooting — a small addition to make a scene in the Far Rockaways of Queens more understandable. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was cutting "The Hours" in New York with Rudin. Bullock was staying at a hotel 20 blocks away with a clear view of the twin towers.
"I hope people are ready for it," says Bullock, herself welling up at times. "The movie-going experience of this with everyone in the room is therapy. And I hate the word therapy, but it's healing. It is the collective supporting each other in whatever they're grieving."
The film is making a late push toward audiences. Long viewed as an Oscar contender, producer Scott Rudin ("The Social Network") kept the movie under wraps until very late in the year. It's an exceptionally heart-wrenching film, likely to be among the weepiest experiences at the movies in years and, therefore, likely to engender either ardent support or skeptical derision. Certainly, that the cast includes two of America's most beloved stars — Hanks and Bullock — should make the film more palatable.
Both audiences and filmmakers have shown reluctance for Sept. 11 stories. More than 10 years later, it's possible they're ready for a more ambitious engagement with the tragedy, after earlier mainstream movies such as "United 93" and "World Trade Center." This year also saw the long-delayed release of Kenneth Lonergan's post-9/11 "Margaret."
"Obviously, the subject matter is certainly what it's about to some extent," says screenwriter Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump," ''The Insider"). "But I think 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close' is about something else. I think it's more about grief."
Roth said Foer was "nothing but a prince" about the adaptation, and that he helped with some aspects of the script, including the voiceovers. The film does away with a past storyline that runs through the novel.
Casting Oskar, the film's protagonist, was one of the biggest challenges for the filmmakers. The 13-year-old Horn, a newcomer to acting, was discovered after he was seen winning a kids episode of "Jeopardy!" But his performance has drawn raves, and in a recent interview with his father alongside, Horn was as sharp and as articulate as Oskar.
"Oskar's father is his only window on the world, you might say," says Horn. "His father is the only person who connects him to everyone else. And his father is the only other person he trusts. So when his father dies, the character needs to find a new way to relate to the world."
Daldry's film particularly succeeds as a life-affirming sensory experience, bright in color (he first wanted to shoot all the 9/11 material on IMAX, but settled for exaggerating the color instead), full of creative perspective (including tilt-shift photography) and layered sound (including Alexandre Desplat's score). Says Daldry: "I always knew the world for young Oskar was incredibly loud and extremely close, and the other way around."
Von Sydow, the legendary 82-year-old veteran of Bergman movies, was quite impressed with Horn, with whom he has all his scenes. He believes, though, that the film is ultimately about more than Sept. 11.
"To me, it's a wonderful story of hope, in a way, with this little boy who has a problem and somehow creates his own therapy in order to get out of this trauma," says von Sydow. "It's a film about hope, hope of survival and finding meaning with your life in spite of all of this that happens."