In Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, we follow a young boy’s searchings. We see his father’s (Tom Hanks’) tutelage and inspiration, which sends his son, Oskar Schell (played by Thomas Horn), on many a journey through the boroughs of New York City. Before he dies on 9/11 in one of the towers, Thomas Schell introduces his son to the “reconnaissance” mission of discovering the missing sixth borough. But his death, and the six answering machine messages that he leaves prior to the tower’s collapse, detours his son to search for the lock that matches a key found in a blue vase hidden at the top of his father’s closet. Was that convoluted enough? Through the five boroughs, Oskar visits everyone whose last name is “Black”—the single word written on the envelope containing the mysterious key. OK, it did get more convoluted. Along the way, he learns to talk civilly to people, which is quite an accomplishment for a child suspected of Asperger’s Disease, discovers his long-deserted grandfather, and overcomes significant fears (e.g., riding on public transportation). It’s a good coming-of-age story, at least for the first two stages (separation→margin), Oskar repeats every Saturday when he (later, joined by his grandfather) journeys from his Manhattan apartment to fulfill all of the requirements of the margin stage: mentor, breaking taboos, struggling with tasks, facing trials, dealing with failures, and grabbling with (pre-)adolescent angst. All that is fairly obvious and well-done. So I don’t choose to discuss it further.
Rather, I’d rather complain about the disturbing ethics of the ending. (Spoiler alert.) Although his mother yearns to hear her husband’s voice just one more time, proclaiming his love for her—a desire she confesses to her son at the end of the movie after they’ve quickly patched up his hostility toward her—Oskar continues to conceal the answering machine messages, one of which reveals his father’s profession of love. Or more accurately, her husband’s profession of love to her. How can he be so cruel, especially since he’s just so poignantly reunited with his mother?
Oskar has one more secret, which he tells to a random character, but again, not to his mother. Flashback to 9/11. Oskar has listened to the first five answering machine messages left by his father. Oskar hears his father’s desperation at being on one of the tower’s floors amidst crying, screaming, and sirens. The phone rings again. Poised, Oskar becomes emotionally and physically paralyzed, ignoring the phone. The machine clicks on. “Are you there?” … “Are you there?” … “Are you there?” … “Are you there?” … “Are you there?” … “Are you there?” … “Are you there?” … “Are you there?” … “Are you there?” Nine times. The phone goes dead. After switching out answering machines, Oskar spends many a secret moment reviewing the messages. We don’t hear the sixth one until very late in the film when Oskar reveals that he envisions his father to be inquiring about him. But Oskar must know that it’s just as likely that this is a husband seeking his wife, a woman he seems to have adored. And Oskar must know how much this sixth message would, in particular, console his mother. Likely, he also knows how much it would disturb her that Oskar never picks up the phone, consigning his father to lonely, lost final moments.
Why Oskar conceals the messages from his mother—his guilt, his control, his spite—matters not to me. He deprives his mother of the truth and perhaps, of the only consolation she will ever find amidst the shambles of her life. While his decision causes her no more anguish, it cheats her from a pseudo reunion with the man she has loved and has loved her.
All ethics aside, this decision prevents Oskar from successfully completing the coming-of-age cycle: separation→margin→aggregation. With such a secret, how can he create a healthy relationship with his mother, his new-found grandfather, and his grandmother? How can he self-actualize when self-actualizing demands creating healthy, authentic relationships?
In the final analysis, Oskar has cheated himself.