“It’s never going to make sense because it doesn’t”
The relationship of a father and son is unique, some more than others. In the case of Thomas (Tom Hanks) and Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) I think this kind of extension of that rule applies.
Oskar is what many would consider to be a very special child. He’s incredibly observant and able to discern some of the most interesting things from the most mundane objects that exist in our world. What helped mold his imagination is his father and how he constantly sent him out on expeditions to find more and more interesting things. On September 11, 2001, Thomas Schell died in the World Trade Center, leaving Oskar in a state of constant missing.
A year after his father’s passing Oskar discovered a key amongst his father’s things and has decided that he has to find the lock that the key fits. Taking on an almost insurmountable task Oskar doesn’t worry about how difficult or long the journey will take him but rather just happy to be on a journey that reminds him of his father’s existence and gives him something to feel as if he’s still there right beside him pushing him to enjoy the mysteries of the world.
Part of me wants to lambast the film for deciding to rest itself atop the historical base of the September 11 attacks that occurred just over a decade ago, because truth be told there’s not much about this movie that really needed that moment in history to be a part of the plot itself. If the film just had Thomas die, in any normal film plot devised way, the story of the movie would remain the exact same. However, that’s like me complaining that Bruce Wayne’s parents could’ve died of cancer and it wouldn’t have mattered to him he could’ve become Batman regardless. So let’s move on from that and talk about everything else, since that’s what matters.
The film, to be nice, is painfully uneven. Oskar’s journey begins wonderfully enough with him going door to door talking to people he believes to be of interest to his quest and we get to experience that joy of meeting a new person and hearing their story piece by piece. It’s almost as if we’re getting a landscaped documentary about the people of New York and it is wondrous. However, eventually the film ends up introducing a few permanent installments in the plot, including The Renter (Max von Sydow), a mute old man who rents a room in Oskar’s Grandmother’s apartment. So we’re once again intrigued to find out this characters story as he aids Oskar in his quest, but finding out his story – just like the story of the key – are not as interesting as we hoped when we finally get to the end of it, especially since it’s painfully obvious as to what the answers are long before we get there.
There are some purposefully wonderfully constructed sequences in this film that do work well though. One scene in particular is when Oskar invites the Renter into his home to play for him the messages that his father left on the answering machine the day he died. I also particularly enjoyed how much Stephen Daldry made all of the introductions of characters that Oskar met on his quest felt and looked a lot like as if we were watching a Spike Lee movie.
One thing that this film failed to deliver for its entire runtime was a truly believable protagonist. In 2011 we saw films such as Super 8, Paranormal Activity 3 and Hanna where children actually delivered performances that surpassed a lot of the veterans in the industry. This film, which actually stars a lot of veterans, failed to pull off the younger character due to the actor’s inability to truly make the role work for him. There were a few character moments, “What’s bad?” where I just felt the actor didn’t reach the level where I bought it.
At the end of the day the film felt a lot like a collage. We, as well as Oskar, had met so many people on this adventure that we almost didn’t care about the end product. We just enjoyed looking back and remembering all of those characters one by one. Yes some were focused on more than others, like the first person Oskar interviewed, Abby Black (Viola Davis), and like every “five-minute” role that Viola Davis plays she knocks the scene dead on its ass as we have been done the same watching it.