dir: Stephen Daldry
This is the last of the nominees for Best Picture this year (well, at the 2012 Oscars scheduled for the 26th of Feb) that I have seen and reviewed, well, am reviewing right now. That’s the only reason I saw it, or at least endured its entire length without walking out, and the only reason I’m reviewing it is so I can at least have the tenuous justification for having an informed opinion about the worthiness of the flick that ends up winning.
And, at the very least, I can say that this flick should definitely not win.
At even very leaster, I can say that this flick should definitely not be watched by anyone, either.
I can’t say if it’s a faithful rendering of the book, because I’m never going to read the book that produced such an aggravating movie. An actively irritating, unsatisfying, unfulfilling, unenjoyable movie.
It’s safe to say that if it didn’t include a lot of footage of the World Trade Centre attacks, an abundance of footage and references and elegiac scenes of people falling, or the smoking towers, or the last (fabricated) words of someone about to die in one of the Towers, this flick would have never seen the light of day. I don’t think people can be casual or dismissive about September Eleven stuff yet, hence the nomination, but, goddamn is this flick unpleasant to spend time with.
Oskar (Thomas Horn) is possibly one of the most abrasively annoying kids to ever grace the silver screen. It was intentional. I think? It’s not made clear in the flick if he’s retarded, or autistic, or schizophrenic, but he occasionally displays all three. He tells a character that his father (Otm Shanks) once had him tested for Asperger’s, but that the tests proved inconclusive.
I find that… hard, to believe.
Oskar’s dad died on Sep 11. It’s not a spoiler, it forms the basis and the structure and the point, allegedly, of the whole flick. Because Oskar’s dad was a great dad, he’d inculcated a fondness in his son for quests and journeys and fabricated mysteries. He’d also tried to convince Oskar that New York City used to have a sixth borough, and that it would be worth his time to search for it.
Is that the final act of a doting father, or that of a monstrous sadist, like that of teaching Creationism as fact to one's progeny is? I’m not sure, but this flick is almost sadistic in what it doles out to us, the increasingly irritated viewer, and it makes you question your own reasonableness in the face of what a human can take.
Oskar is meant to be nine, at least he is in the book, and he claims to be intelligent, but what most of the film’s plot depends on is the kid believing something a dumber, younger kid wouldn’t believe. Yes, yes, I understand that he’s motivated by grief, and guilt, and a host of other stuff (precocious annoyingness chief amongst them), but none of that justifies or explains why he comes to believe that a random key he finds, in an envelope with the word ‘Black’ scrawled upon it, would point to some final message from his father.
I'm not that bright, or as bright as an autistic nine-year-old New Yorker, but even I know that Black is a colour as well, and that there are millions of people with the surname Black, who could be relevant, but who live slightly outside of New York.
In fairness to the flick, the same kind of plot device is central, or important, in Hugo, another flick up for Best Picture this year, as a motivator for the character’s actions throughout the movie. And, yes, I bought it there, and I don’t buy it here.
Does it seem arbitrary? Perhaps. It’s just that I don’t understand or accept that a kid could believe something as fucking stupid as a single key and the word Black having to = Way to Keep Father Alive.
When he sets out to track down every person in New York with the surname Black, my initial misgivings gave way to indifference, because, hey, the film is about what the film is about. He sneaks around, not telling his mother what he’s doing, pretending to be going elsewhere when he’s really door-knocking complete strangers and asking them the dumbest question ever conceived.
What happens, though, in most cases, bluntly telling people that his father died on Septimus Elevensies opens doors and people’s hearts, so they let him in, humour him, look after him, dote on him, and allow their lives to be touched by Oskar, as he, in turn, is completely untouched by them.
That he screams at most people when he’s talking to them doesn’t seem to aggravate the people in the flick as much as it aggravated me, but then, I’m not a New Yorker. They’re probably used to it. That these people don’t seem real to him, and that he finds everything frightening and overwhelming, except when he doesn’t, is meant to be of no import, because, hey, it’s September Eleven, and you’re not meant to be able to be critical in the face of that. No thought, just emotion, okay? Okay.
The music, the treacly, abundant and overbearing music is goading you towards emotions you don’t feel the way an overbearing Mediterranean mother manipulates you into eating more even and especially when you’re not hungry.
For reasons too boring to explain, an old man starts accompanying Oskar on his forays into the mean streets of NYC. That old man is played by Max Von Sydow, one of the greatest living actors working solidly for the last sixty goddamn years. He was in Bergman’s Seventh Seal, for Christ’s sake, that’s how long he’s been acting. And what do they have him do? He's a mute, a goddamn mute. Why's he doing any of this?
The explanation will not surprise you. He’s there only because Oskar needs someone to yell at, to yell his guilt at, and the only person he can tell that he feels like he betrayed his father just before the Towers came down.
Is any of this emotionally meaningful? Well, kinda. It's hard, really damn hard to completely harden my heart over some of the scenes that Oskar has, including with the old man. But just when I feel like the flick has earned some of the sentiment it's peddling, it finds ways to diminish the meagre achievements that it manages.
It's almost like the flick is saying "You didn't care enough yet? Well, let's pour some mawkish sentimentality on top, or have Oskar yell another inappropriate thing at someone, to really seal the deal" after a lot of these moments.
Of all the people trying to make a decent go of it, Sandra Bullock as the mother, despite her immobile face, tries really hard to play the role of a grieving widow who's trying to deal decently with an impossible kid, but the flick does something towards the end, which is meant to be a revision of what we've previously seen, which makes her seem like a complete moron. This is New York City, for crying out loud, and accepting the flick, and what happens in it, and where it happens, requires a completely fantastical letting go of reality or reasonable human behaviour, even as it deals with the actions of a possibly autistic kid.
And the kid, the goddamn kid. I want to, but can’t blame the actor, because it seems that most of the blame should be laid at the feet of the author, who contrived to create a character who combines all of his own most precious qualities into the construct of the most obnoxious kid possible. I’m not sure how that character was meant to be likable or relatable. Compared to the protagonist of The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night, the Mark Haddon story, which was a genuine and well-rounded depiction of an autistic child character, Oskar just isn’t acceptable.
His interactions with decent actors, like Viola Davis, Geoffrey Wright, John Goodman, Max Von Sydow, who do the best they can, never come off as real, because even when the characters the others play are acted well, it just seems incongruous compared to the stuff the kid character is doing. These people are either saints or, more likely, complete contrivances.
The resolution of the various plotted elements are beyond unsatisfying, unless we’re supposed to see Oskar as this kind of holy fool / magical creature who improves the lives of everyone he interacts with just by brushing up against them. And if we were meant to do so, I’m sad to say I totally didn’t.
It’s a lot of a stretch to expect us to accept a lot of this crap, but it’s an even bigger stretch to expect to care about it as well. I don’t think that the two can happen simultaneously. It can be Loud, or Extremely something, but it can’t be Close to anything apart from A Horribly Contrived Artefact, where nothing matters yet everything tugs at heartstrings that just aren’t interested any more.
And as you’re saying to yourself “I’m not interested”, the flick trots out another ‘resonant’ image of 9/11’s day of horror, and we’re meant to feel bad that we’re not more in love with the movie.
There’s a word for that, or maybe even two words: abusive manipulation, and I don’t like it. Reclaim the night, reclaim the cinema, reclaim your eyeballs, and just say no.
2 times the wrong people died on that dark day out of 10
“I started with a simple problem... a key with no lock... and I designed a system I thought fit the problem. I broke everything down in the smallest parts... and tried to think of each person as a number... in a gigantic equation.” – that equals a big, fat zero – Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close