When I read last year that this film had been Oscar-nominated as one of the year's best, my initial reaction was "huh?", since I had never heard of it and I didn't think it was even released in Britain at that time. I therefore assumed it was some sort of 'makeweight' to find the requisite number of suitable movies to nominate for best film, much as "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" was for some unknown reason included in the Golden Globes this week.
I have finally caught up with this Stephen Daldry-directed flick and am still a little puzzled at its inclusion, although it is certainly the kind of schizoid movie that will split viewers firmly down the middle between those who 'get' its somewhat buried message and those who see it as some sort of 9/11 exploitation. Nearly the entire film focuses on nine-year old Oskar, played by Thomas Horn in his first screen role. Oskar could be described as suffering from 'Autism Spectrum Disorder' or compulsive behaviour or borderline Asperger's -- no matter he is certainly not a 'normal' or remotely loveable child with his brash, abrasive manner. Tom Hanks briefly plays his father, a jeweller, who together with his maternal grandmother, is one of the few adults who can get through to him; he has always planned 'adventure puzzles' for the two of them to pursue and solve, especially the mystery of the sixth missing New York City borough. Unfortunately a meeting takes him to the 106th floor of the Twin Towers on that fateful day (referred to as "the worst day" by Oskar throughout the film), and all the lad has left of his father is a series of increasingly panicky messages left on the home answering machine. As a part of his strange behaviour, Oskar has replaced the machine with a duplicate, keeping this memento of his father from his mother -- played by an initially unrecognizable Sandra Bullock.
A year after his father's death (when all the family could bury was an empty coffin), Oskar ventures into his dad's closet and finds a strange blue vase hidden on a shelf. He accidently smashes it to reveal a key in an envelope with 'Black' written upon it and decides that this is one last puzzle that his father has set for him. He then makes elaborate charts and itineraries and sets out to visit every 'Black' in the New York telephone directories, bringing him into contact with a variety of friendly or hostile residents, none of whom knew his father. He takes photos of each of them on an old camera that supposedly belonged originally to his father's father, who has been 'missing in action' throughout their respective lives. Initially he makes his visits on foot to even the furthest reaches of the city since he is afraid of the risks on public transport. However when he recruits a mute old man into his quest -- a 'renter' in his grandmother's flat -- he is forced onto the subways. The aged gent is played by screen icon Max von Sydow, who was nominated for a best supporting male Oscar, despite having not a single line of dialogue -- shades of John Mills in "Ryan's Daughter" albeit a far less grotesque character. He alone is allowed to hear the first five of the six answerphone messages from the dead Hanks, until he signals 'no more' and urges the boy to give up the search. He also promptly packs up and moves away, confirming Oskar's belief that he is indeed the missing grandfather.
In the end the key is found to have a very real purpose, but was never intended for Oskar. The film is quite hard going, since virtually all of the action is seen from the boy's point of view, and as I wrote above, it is a nearly impossible task to empathise with the abusive lad who is so very different from your average run of movie tykes. The film however should not be accused of any maudlin use of the 9/11 tragedy, since it is really only a vehicle for one strange young man's attempt to deal with his grief and to make sense of events that he is unable to fathom. The film is based on a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, who is reputedly not an 'easy' writer to appreciate; however a surprisingly entertaining film was released in 2005 of his novel "Everything is Illuminated" -- also a strange and unusual tale -- and the movie version above is probably as close as one can get to his written word. This is certainly not to say that it is a particularly well-made film, although Daldry has a history of movies featuring troubled young men ("Billy Elliott"), and there is no arguing the fact that young Master Horn does a consummate job as Oskar. The large cast also includes Viola Davis in a key role and again a hard to recognize John Goodman in a small role as the apartment house doorman. The movie could be accused of being a little too diffuse and certainly a lot too long, but it does leave us with a worthwhile message if we can try to find ourselves inside the unusual brain of a singularly unusual child.