Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close: Movie Review

Review by Stacey Tuttle

I guess I should confess.  I sat there in judgment, watching this movie about a young boy who is searching alone all over New York City for a lock which will fit a key that his dead father left behind.  It’s brilliantly symbolic, really; he is looking for something which will help him unlock the mystery of “Why?”  It was creative and unusual and beautifully acted.  I loved the story of this boy and his search, but I was,  throughout the movie, judging his absent mother (Sandra Bullock).  What kind of mother lets her pre-teen child search alone all over the five boroughs of New York, alone?  I was judging, right until the end, when I
realized how wrong I had been.  And then it hit me.  I am guilty of judging God for the same neglect, and equally wrong.

Young Oskar (Thomas Horn) gets let out of school early on 9-11.  He heads home, not fully aware of what has happened.  He gets home to discover that not only has the World Trade Center been attacked, but his father (Tom Hanks) is in the World Trade Center.  His mom isn’t home yet, so Oskar (who has some form of Autism) is left alone to deal with five voice messages his father has left.  Not only that, but his father calls again, and Oskar doesn’t have the courage to pick up the phone.  He lets it go to voicemail, for a sixth and final message.

Oskar hides all of this from his mother.  He never told anyone—not about any of the messages, and especially not about his father’s final phone call, the one he didn’t answer.  Oskar was haunted by the fact that in his father’s moment of need, he betrayed him.

More than a year passes when Oskar just can’t hold it in any longer and finally confesses to a stranger, William Black (Jeffrey Wright).  He tells William, “He needed me, and I couldn’t pick it up” (the phone).  Not only that, but he felt that his dad knew he was there and not picking up the phone.  He told William, “He said, ‘Are you there?’  He could have said ‘Is anyone there?’  But I think he knew.  I think he knew I was there and wanted to give me time to be brave enough to answer.”

Editorial aside here, does this set off about a dozen Biblical connections for anyone else?  Primarily it reminds me of two things.  First, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: Genesis 3:8-10 says, “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as He was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden.  But the LORD God called
to the man, ‘Where are you?’ He answered, ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.’”  God surely knew, being omnipotent and such, where Adam and Eve were.  Like Oskar’s dad, maybe “He wanted to give [them] time to be brave enough to answer.”  The second connection I see is the disciples who were scared and ran away from Jesus, abandoning Him in his time of need as He was crucified.

I said that Oskar confessed to William about the voicemails and the phone call, but he also went a step further and asked for forgiveness.  It’s interesting to me, he cuts himself some slack for his fear.  The real sin he wants forgiveness for is surprising—it’s for his silence, for hiding his mistake, not for making the mistake.

Oskar: “Do you forgive me?”

William: “For not picking up?”

Oskar: “For not being able to tell anyone.”

William: “Of course I forgive you.”

Oskar: “I can’t tell you how much better that makes me feel.”

Yet another beautiful connection to scripture.  We need to confess and we need to ask for forgiveness.  These are critical steps to healing.

So, Oskar searches the city, meets all of these interesting people, gets to spend time with his grandfather whom he’d never met (beautifully played by Max Von Sidow), and confesses and finds forgiveness for the sins that were haunting him.  All of this was beautiful, but it  bothered me, too.  It bothered me because he did it all alone.  Where was his mother in all of this?  I am sure she was grieving too, but what kind of mother would let her young, (Autistic) son go through all of this alone?  Their relationship was troubled throughout the entire movie.  He clearly adored his dad and didn’t know how to relate to his mom, or maybe she didn’t know how to relate to him.

In my notes (yes, I take notes as I watch movies, I do) I had literally just written down a judgmental note about his absent mom when everything changed, and I sat there weeping with conviction and a beautiful sense of God’s love for me.  Let me explain.

Oskar comes home finally freed from guilt (because he had confessed and asked for forgiveness), and with his mystery solved (he found the lock for the key).  It wasn’t solved as he expected, but it was solved and there was some closure to that.  He sat there talking to his mom, his mom who seemed so absent, who never seemed to understand him at all, who didn’t appear to know anything about his struggles, his quest, his secrets or his journey.   His mom who, in reality, knew absolutely every secret and every step.  Not only was she fully aware, but she even prepared the way.

What Oskar didn’t know, what we in the audience didn’t know, was that his mother had gone into his room, his secret place.  She had worked hard to understand how her son thought.  She found all the secrets he was hiding, all the plans he was making.  She went ahead of him to each person he determined to visit and prepared them to receive him well.  She followed his plans, his steps, his progress.  She went before him and behind him.  She asked him incredulously, “Did you really think I would let you do this alone?” (paraphrase).

Oskar was shocked.  Like a typical kid, he thought his room was sacred ground.  “You were snooping?”  he asked her.  “I was searching for you,” his mom replied with amazing tenderness, compassion, and longing.  He thought he had been all alone in his struggles.  He also thought that his father was the only one who could think like him, and his father was gone.  Little did he know the love his mom had for him, or his mom’s ability to understand him.  She knew he had to go and “make sense of things,” and she knew she “had to go with him.”  She loved him.  She would fight for him.  He was her son.

How often have you felt alone in life?  Have you felt that no one understood you, or that no one knew what secrets you were hiding?  Have you felt that you were all alone in your journey and in your struggles?  I have felt that way.  I have sat there and judged God for being absent just as I sat there and judged Oskar’s mom for being absent.

Oh how wrong we are if we think we are alone.  God made us.  He knows us, intimately.  David wrote in Psalm 139,

You have searched me, LORD,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, LORD, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.

If we think that no one understands us, we are grievously mistaken.

Not only does God understand us, but He goes ahead of us to prepare the way for us, and He goes behind us to make sure we are OK.  “But you will not leave in haste or go in flight; for the LORD will go before you, the God of Israel will be your rear guard.”[1]

We may feel that God is snooping.  We may think that we don’t want Him getting involved.  We need to know, though, that God is not snooping into our lives.  He’s not snooping, but He is searching for us, lovingly, longingly.  God wants to bring us home.  He wants to help us through.  He wants to set us free from the guilt and the questions that plague us.  He also understands the times when we need to feel that we are alone, the times when we aren’t ready yet to accept His help and His love.  Just like with Oskar and his mother, we may
not always be ready to accept the help and love He offers, but that doesn’t mean He will stop giving it.  He just does so without our knowledge of it—without our knowledge of it until we are ready to see and accept it.

Questions for Discussion:

    • Have you ever judged God for being absent in your life when you felt you needed Him most?
    • Have you ever had a moment when you realized that you were completely wrong and unfair in your judgment of someone?  Or have you been on the other end, and been judged unfairly yourself
    • Do you ever feel that God is giving you time to be brave enough to do something (like Oskar answering the phone)?
    • Have you ever been so scared you abandoned someone else in their time of need
    • Is there something you’ve done which is haunting you?  Some secret sin you need to confess?  Do you need to ask someone for forgiveness for something?
    • Do you feel like God is snooping in your life?  Or do you know that He is really searching for you, trying to show you how much He loves you?

Click here to read a collection of quotes from the movie.

[1] Isaiah 52:12