It would seem based in part on some the reactions that this film has received that 9/11 is still a cinematic subject matter that is off limits in the minds of some. For my ruminations of the handling of the day and my thoughts on it go here, in this review I will try and stay on topic, which is the film at hand. As for the film itself it handles the day and its ramifications with about as much restraint and respect as possible with very few and minor exceptions.
The few minor missteps are taken in the realm of artistic license where our protagonist Oskar has fleeting visions of his father having jumped. Aside from that I just have a very minor quibble about the very closing shot, however, all told the marketing did not lie and much of the story does deal with the days after. When dealing with 9/11 itself it is usually over the phone or on voicemail. The buildings are not entered, the day is not painstakingly chronicled. There is one scene with a shot of the towers in the distance and one with the implosion on TV. This laundry list may seem a bit trite but when dealing with an actual tragedy in a fractured chronology you will, as in real life, repeat the tragedy many times so it’s key to see it as little as possible. I think it’s fair to say we all remember what it looked like.
Ultimately, breaking the timeline up starting with a burial then going back occasionally to just before it happened and then to the journey undertaken afterward is the most effective possible treatment. This rendition of the events of the date thus far this one has most closely replicated the range of emotions I felt on that fateful day. In its traversing time and displaying impacts then causes and moreover conveying the tangibility of the senselessness of the acts and the confusion and fear they incurred the film recreates the numbness, the gnawing in my stomach and the sudden floods of emotion triggered soon thereafter. In a manner of speaking it acts as a time capsule. As fantastical as the storyline is in certain ways it hits truths on many levels.
People have issues when raw nerves are hit. Hitting nerves is what art should do as long as it’s done tastefully and I think this film succeeds in that regard it just so happens that all the nerves on this event are still rather raw. This is likely a kind of story we won’t be comfortable with for a very long time but let’s face it the moratorium ended long ago. Whether one finds this experience cathartic or manipulative is quite subjective I’ll admit but I found it to be the former.
One thing that I cannot state clearly enough is that one ought not confuse Oskar’s character with Thomas Horn’s performance. Oskar, the character, is socially awkward and referred to as having undiagnosed Aspeberger’s, he’s an at times abrasive, smartass New Yorker who has ticks and next to no inner-monologue. He may make you laugh because he’s weird and unabashedly so or he may annoy you because it’s too much for you to handle. Yet his plight; his search for meaning, is universal and the quality of his performance is beyond reproach, particularly when he tells the story of his search to The Renter (Max von Sydow), granted that speech is aided by great edits where L-cuts have his dialogue chase itself but his delivery is such that he hit crescendos in the right spots as if he’s doing a topping exercise with himself. He’s positively brilliant.
The performances that support his lead are fantastic as well and in many ways really take this film up a level. Firstly, there is the slew of smaller appearances by those who Oskar visits in search of answers. Their interpretations make this concept plausible and their crew is spearheaded by Viola Davis. Similarly, Tom Hanks is absolutely perfectly cast in a role where his presence needs to far exceed his screentime and he excels enormously.
On occasion there are moments, whether they be lines or readings where actors will cut straight to the heart of me, some of the more memorable instantaneously induced reactions recently would have been precipitated by Marion Cotillard pleading that she has to sing in La Vie en Rose and Asa Butterfield’s pleas when he suspects he’s really been caught in Hugo. Sandra Bullock’s assurance to her son that “Some things just don’t make sense” is what got me here, in a heartbeat. Lastly, there’s Max von Sydow who stands out even amongst many recent mute performances and has a huge impact on this film and has perhaps even more gravitas for not speaking than he would otherwise.
In his past two projects Stephen Daldry has dealt with uncomfortable and controversial subject matter and while both are very different he’s handled each about as well as one could hope. He is, and will remain, one of the few directors whose name being on a project will be all I need to know.