“As a mother comforts her child, so will I [God] comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.”
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
This powerful post 9/11 story about grieving 11 year-old Oskar begins on the day when the planes taken over by terrorists brought down Manhattan’s World Trade Center’s towers. The boy does not answer the phone when his father, trapped high up in one of the Towers calls home, so there is a measure of guilt in Oskar’s obsessive search later to find what a key he finds in his father’s closet might fit.
In flashbacks we see that Oskar was close to his father Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks) and might have a case of borderline austism or Asperger’s Syndrome. Possessing little social skills, he is not liked at school, sometimes subject to bullying by the bigger boys. It might be because of this that his father spent so much quality time with him, the two traipsing through central Park and the five boroughs of the city playing games as they search for the what Thomas calls the lost “sixth borough, The father calls these outings “reconnaissance expedition.” Not close to his mother, Oskar withdraws even further from her following their loss. He even replaces the answering machine with a new one and places the old one in a hidden shrine to his father where he plays over and over the last messages. The one person he now is close to is his grandmother ((Zoe Caldwell) who lives across the street. He frequently converses with her via a walkie-talkie. Living in one room of her flat is an old man known only as The Renter ( Max von Sydow).
On the day that Oskar finds the key, he is rummaging through the closet in his parents’ bedroom, Mom being at work. An old vase on the shelf falls and shatters on the floor, spilling out an envelope with the word “Black” written on it. Inside is the key. Assuming that the word, with it’s “B” in capital letters, refers to a last name, Oskar discovers in the massive telephone directory that there are 472 “Blacks” living in New York City, so he figures that it will take three years of weekends to search out all of the Blacks, if he spends just six minutes interviewing each Black to discover where and what the key fits. He is that convinced that the key will unlock some riddle that his game-playing father had left for him.
Afraid of subways and bridges, he travels mostly on foot, taking along a tambourine to shake whenever a fear rises. The first Blacks whom he encounters are Abbey (Viola Davis) and William Black (Jeffrey Wright). They are in the midst of breaking up, but Oskar is so socially insensitive that he is unaware of why William is leaving. She takes a motherly interest in the boy, but can offer no tangible help. As his interviews progress, Oskar begins to listen to the stories of others as well as telling his own, and thus the interviews stretch way beyond the six minutes he originally had planned to spend with each Black.
After a while Oskar picks up a companion, the Renter, a man either unable or unwilling to talk, answering most questions with a “Yes” or a “No” printed on the palms of his hands. To more complicated queries he replies by writing on a small tablet of paper. Their relationship is rocky at first, but develops into a warm one, with the boy speculating on the identity of the mysterious man, who had survived the Holocaust.
As journey or quest films go, this is a richly rewarding one, though not all critics agree. Some have not liked the numerous references to and use of TV footage of 9/11, but to me this anchors and reveals the boy’s grief, and his guilt in not answering his father’s desperate phone calls. Some have noted that NYC is too dangerous a place for an 11 year-old boy to be going about alone—admittedly a proper concern, and one which scriptwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) might have addressed with just a minimum of dialogue or encounter. However, Oskar’s precociousness would not have paid much attention to this. Another objection raised was the sudden emergence of Linda, the boy’s mother, at the end as a protective force, but to me this was a delightful surprise, though, given the nature of most mothers, not entirely unexpected.
Director Stephen Daldry again gifts us with a boy as interesting as the one in his acclaimed Billy Elliot, a boy wounded by death caused by misguided human zeal and maliciousness, and who struggles to find healing and answers to questions he can scarcely articulate. The film is narrated by Oskar, and I love the way in which he comes to see that life is not as rationalistic as he first conceives it: Oskar: “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.” Then, “But it wasn’t working… because people aren’t like numbers. They’re more like letters… and those letters want to become stories… and dad said that stories need to be shared.” And then, “I had anticipated a six minute visit with each person named “Black” … but they were never just six minutes. Everyone took more time than I had planned for… to try and comfort me and make me feel better about my dad… and to tell me their stories. But I didn’t want to feel better and I didn’t want friends… I just wanted the lock. I wasn’t getting any closer to my dad… I was losing him.” How, back at Central Park where he and his Dad had spent so much time together. Oskar finds his Dad, and himself, might seem a bit improbable, but nonetheless it makes for an inspiring conclusion to a film that you will long remember.
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