A nine-year-old amateur inventor, Francophile, and pacifist searches New York City for the lock that matches a mysterious key left behind by his father, who died in the World Trade Center on... Read allA nine-year-old amateur inventor, Francophile, and pacifist searches New York City for the lock that matches a mysterious key left behind by his father, who died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.A nine-year-old amateur inventor, Francophile, and pacifist searches New York City for the lock that matches a mysterious key left behind by his father, who died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Oskar Schell (played by newcomer Thomas Horn) is rather the abrasive kid who is both precocious and socially awkward- though test results on Asperger's syndrome turned out inconclusive. One year after that fateful day, Oskar steps inside his father's closet and finds a key inside an envelope with the name 'Black' scrawled on the front. Thinking that it might be one of his father, Thomas' (Tom Hanks), elaborate puzzles he used to concoct in order to force his son to interact with people, Oskar sets off on a personal quest to track down the source of the key.
Equipped with a backpack of essentials- including an Israeli gas mask, 'A Brief History of Time' by Stephen Hawkings, and a tambourine that he uses to calm himself amid the din and bustle of the city- Oskar traverses by foot through the five boroughs of New York knocking on the doors of everyone with the last name 'Black' he can locate in the phone book. Some of the people he meets include a married couple (Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright) on the verge of divorce, a religious woman who offers up Oskar's mission to God, and a transsexual with a lifestyle too wild for Oskar's comfort- it takes all sorts to make the world, and if each of these attempts turn out futile, it at least fulfils his father's hope that Oskar will learn to be more sociable.
Each encounter is also an affirmation of the collective tragedy that was 9/11, as Oskar's story moves those he meets to concern and compassion be they survivors or mourners. The unanimous display of empathy is poignant, reaffirming humanity's ability to unite behind grief and loss. But screenwriter Eric Roth makes this journey as much about the mutual heroism of New Yorkers trying to make sense and come to terms with the senselessness and devastation as it is about an individual family's struggle to recover from the very disaster.
Just as affecting therefore is the examination of the effect that Thomas' death has on the dynamics of the family- the mother Linda (Sandra Bullock) coping with her husband's passing while trying her best to win the understanding and love of her son; and the grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) thrust into an uneasy position as Oskar's confidant even as he rebuffs his mother. Oskar also forms a connection with a certain mysterious Renter (Max von Sydow) living in his grandmother's apartment, whose willingness to accompany Oskar on his trips belies a painful secret and a deeper personal motivation.
No stranger to heavy-handed dramas, director Stephen Daldry (his fourth feature after the critically acclaimed 'Billy Elliot', 'The Hours' and 'The Reader') handles the potentially histrionic proceedings with surprising deftness. Especially heartrending is Linda's predicament- a scene where she breaks down from hearing Oskar say the words 'I love you' just outside the main door after he leaves in a huff is particularly touching; while a plot twist late into the movie that shows the extent of a mother's love for her son will leave only the hardest of hearts unmoved. Bullock is uncharacteristically low-key but very effective in the role, her heartbreak keenly felt through her grimaces and tears.
Daldry also gets an excellent performance from von Sydow- with wordless shrugs and sighs, he effortlessly conveys his character's troubled past, one so traumatising that he has chosen to remain silent and relate to others with a simple 'yes' on one palm and 'no' on the other. And at the heart of it all is Thomas Horn's mesmerising turn, the 'Kids Jeopardy' winner utterly captivating as the bright but socially inept kid trying desperately to cling onto the one thing that he thinks will help him remain connected to his deceased father.
Appropriately then, the film has been nominated for Best Picture honours- though amongst the nine nominees this year, this is probably the lowest rated overall by critics. Many have criticised Daldry's mawkish sentimentality for undermining the material, but in truth, we thought there was much restraint and nuance in his method. In fact, Daldry deserves praise for preserving both the poignancy and pathos of his source novel, delicately portraying both the effect of 9/11 on a sensitive boy and his family as well as that of the larger community around him. True it takes some time to get to understand Oskar on his level, but the very fact that Daldry has retained the inherent eccentrics of his key character is the surest sign that this is not your typical maudlin 9/11 drama. It is stimulating to say the least, extremely tender and incredibly uplifting.
- Feb 22, 2012