"Extremely Loud" portrays grief, relief in time of tragedy


Film junkies across America have undoubtedly witnessed the brouhaha surrounding "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." It seems that members of the film community either love it or hate it, and those who hate it come from multiple camps:

Film critics who find it cloyingly sentimental, lovers of the original novel who disagree with the screenwriter's omissions and those close to 9/11 who find it a clumsy handling of a raw subject. I'm here to tell you that they're all wrong.

The film chronicles nine-year-old Oskar Schell, an eccentric New York boy who lost his much-idolized father on 9/11. While rummaging through his father's closet, Oskar discovers an envelope containing a key, which he assumes will fit a lock that will reveal some final aspect of his father to him and alleviate his crushing sense of loss. The envelope is labeled "Black," prompting Oskar to chase across New York seeking those with that name.

His quest is a means of holding onto the last vestiges of his father, of refusing to move forward, of struggling to close the door to the past.

Jonathan Safran Foer's novel is a tear-stained well-loved favorite of mine, so naturally, I walked into the theater with reservations. I wanted to be disheartened by the omissions and by the alteration of its gut-punching ending, but I found myself so emotionally wrung that in the end none of my nitpicky quibbles mattered.

Extremely Loud epitomizes how recovery from tragedy isn't ever straightforward or effortlessly cathartic. Something as simple as fitting a key into a lock can't vaporize grief. In one pivotal scene, Oskar cries that nothing about his quest across New York makes sense and in doing so, he gets at the heart of the film: Something as random and brutal as tragedy never can and never will make sense. Oskar thinks and thinks and thinks, but he's trying to make sense of what cannot be made sense of.

The film also discusses the selfishness of grief in that Oskar seems to believe that his suffering is perhaps more valid or more real than the suffering of the New Yorkers he encounters.

He villainizes his struggling mother, concealing from her an answering machine on which his father, trapped in one of the Twin Towers, left increasingly frightened messages.

Critics claim that Extremely Loud is a cloying, kitschy interpretation of a colossal tragedy. In the end, however, Extremely Loud isn't a film about 9/11.

It's about the idiosyncratic way in which individuals recover from tragedy, about the beauty of the manner in which human beings touch one another's lives and about the immense grief of a city and a family. 9/11 is merely the backdrop, the context, the catalyst — it isn't the story.

Extremely Loud isn't a touching look at 9/11. It's a touching look at the bonds formed by virtue of tragedy, at the necessity of appreciating the limited time we have with those we love, at the manifestation and alleviation of grief.

It shows not simply how Oskar touches the lives of the Blacks, but how the Blacks touch his life. It shows not only the infinite methods by which grief and tragedy send us tailspinning out of control, but the methods by which we rein ourselves in to heal.

Above all else, Extremely Loud is about a grieving child struggling to understand a tragedy in a city that knows his sadness. If envisioning that city as a place where the hard-hearted open their doors and their hearts to a boy with naught more than a key and hope is wrongly sentimental, then I don't want to be right.

— Westenfeld is a freshmen from Fort Wayne, Ind., majoring in English literature and creative writing.