Sometimes its a mistake to see a movie full of pathos right after you’ve just had your own gut-wrenching personal experience of loss of a family member. So, it was with some trepidation that I went to see the new star-studded and widely praised film with Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, a brilliant but mute Max von Sydow, and the real star of the show Thomas Horn. Horn plays the brilliant but emotionally over-wrought child (possibly with Asperger’s Syndrome) who is on a ‘quest’ to follow clues he believed his father left behind after dying in the World Trade Towers on 9-11-01.
It is an interesting phenomena to note what sort of people avoid this sort of movie like the plague. They do not want to be reminded of one of our nation’s worst days, or they are tired of Hollywood milking such traumas for all they are worth, or frankly they do not want to remember and be caught up in their own personal melodrama by watching the film. Some might have expected I would avoid the film for the latter reason— it would be too close to the bone, too close to my own recent experience of suddenly no longer having in my life a dearly beloved family member. But in fact, since I believe it is good and necessary to grieve and not to avoid one’s pain in such situations, I went to the film to gain some insight, to gain some solace, to gain some better coping skills for overwhelming loss.
Here is the official summary of the film—
“Oskar (Thomas Horn) is convinced that his father (Tom Hanks), who died in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, has left a final message for him hidden somewhere in the city. Feeling disconnected from his grieving mother (Sandra Bullock) and driven by a relentlessly active mind that refuses to believe in things that can’t be observed, Oskar begins searching New York City for the lock that fits a mysterious key he found in his father’s closet. His journey through the five boroughs takes him beyond his own loss to a greater understanding of the observable world around him.”
This movie has many fine performances and features. In the first place it does not trivialize loss or pain, nor does it offer glib or trite answers to difficult questions about suffering and death. This movie does not sugar coat anything. And yet, in so many ways it is a gentle film, as it looks through the lens of the experience of the child— Oscar Schell. Some of the most effective scenes are those between Von Sydow and Horn, right at the heart of the film, with Hanks and Bullock and even Viola Davis playing secondary roles around the edge of the film. Take one acutely sensitive and bright child, mix in major trauma, put him on a quest of meaning, have him meet lots of interesting people, and gain new friends and family.and you have a film that moves and touches you without patronizing you.
In some ways this film will remind you of the Sixth Sense in terms of the way Horn plays the brilliant child, but the substance of the film is entirely different because Horn doesn’t believe in miracles doesn’t believe much in God either, despite his encounter with those who pray for him and lay hands on him in his quest. He is an analytical materialist is Oscar, and he refuses to accept fuzzy answers to blunt questions. And yet the film shows how he comes to the end of himself, to realize the limits of his ability to derive some meaning or make sense of what has happened to him. When meaning and blessing comes in the film, it is purely serendipity, not of his own contrivance.
In a season of bad movies, heading for some really bad and schlocky Valentine’s movies that are all about people who say they are in love when really they are just in heat, this movie is indeed all about love, and family values. And I would urge all Christian adults to see it, and think and feel deeply about and with this film. My reason is simply— though Oscar could not see it, God himself is extremely loud and incredibly close in this film through the love and loved ones he encounters along the way.