Director: Stephen Daldry.
Paramount/Scott Rudin/Warner Bros.
Producer: Scott Rudin. Writer: Eric Roth. Camera: Chris Menges. Music: Alexandre Desplat. Sets: K.K. Barrett.
Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn, Zoe Caldwell, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, John Goodman, Jeffrey Wright, Hazelle Goodman.
Young Oskar (Horn) lives in a close and loving household with his parents and Grandmother. His idyllic life is shattered however when his father (Hanks) is killed in one of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. He is bereft but chances upon a key hidden amongst his father’s effects and sets about locating the lock that it fits into.
Daldry is the deft hand behind gentle film’s that have a seam of steel running through them, such as Billy Elliott (working class British boy learns ballet), The Hours (portmanteau period lesbian drama) and The Reader (love story between a teenager and an older woman, who used to supervise in a Nazi death camp). Right choice he was then to direct this odd piece.
9/11 has provided artistic inspiration for a number of playwrights, novelists and filmmakers this past decade. On film, this includes work as diverse as Michael Moore’s incendiary documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, Oliver Stone’s Nicholas Cage starring World Trade Center and the acclaimed made-for-television docu-drama Flight 93.
Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, this weepy drama takes a less conventional route, mixing the whimsical adventure of a young boy with Asperger’s syndrome with the emotional fall-out of a disaster. At least Foer was brave to go off on a unique tangent, but it creates very unwelcome feelings in the viewer. Using 9/11 as the springboard for this wish fulfilment yarn seems ghoulish, irresponsible, meretricious. The recurring visual motif of Hanks free-falling for eternity as his son imagines him bravely leaping from the crumbling sky scraper doesn’t help ease the mind.
Neither do some very disturbing aspects of Oskar’s parents that would ring alarm bells with even the most useless social worker, as both seem content to let him wonder off alone around New York, foraging with the homeless or calling on strangers in their homes (“Didn’t you think I’d be raped or murdered?” he asks his mother. “Every hour of every day” is her incredible response).
When it tries to be a gut-wrenching weepy, the film works very well and there are quite a few moments that help get the tears flowing. The performances are striking in that they are stripped back to the very basics (von Sydow doesn’t even speak). Bullock is quietly impressive as Oskar’s mother, slowly sinking into depression, looking and sounding as if her very soul has been sucked out of her. Von Sydow snags an Oscar nomination for that wordless but infinitely expressive performance as Oskar’s mute grandfather. Even the normally carousing Goodman is reduced to trading insults with Oskar in a passive, monotonous tone as if he, like everyone and everything else, is automatically diminished by the events on that day.
The film belongs to Horn though, who is a remarkable find as Oskar and he brings the film to life with a nervous, twitchy energy perfectly in keeping with the bizarre path the narrative takes.