Based on the Jonathan Safran Foer novel, this film holds its heavy emotional weight in check right up to a rather overwrought conclusion. But along the way, its characters worm their way under our skin.
Oskar (Horn) is the son of a jeweller (Hanks) who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. A year later, he's still struggling to make sense of what he calls "the worst day", worrying that his sense of his father is fading away. So when he finds a key in his father's things, Oskar embarks on a quest to find the lock. His mother (Bullock) is lost in her own grief, but Oskar finds companionship in the mute stranger (von Sydow) who rents a room from his granny (Caldwell).
With a dense Alexandre Desplat score, textured Chris Menges cinematography and fluid editing by Claire Simpson, this film feels almost like a wave that engulfs us right from the eerily effective opening shot. Daldry has done this before (see The Hours), although this film also has a more manipulative plot in which each character and situation seem to be packed with deeper meaning.
Fortunately, Oskar's sense of yearning helps undermine the sentiment.
Horn is terrific in every scene, beautifully bringing out Oskar's autistic quirks without letting us feel any pity. The way he so brutally dismisses his mother is heartbreaking because it's so honest, and his growing bond with von Sydow's enigmatic, engagingly cheeky renter is fascinating to watch. Bullock gets her most complex role since Crash, and Davis gives yet another terrific supporting turn as one of the first people Oskar encounters on his journey.
Where the film wobbles is in its over-reverent treatment of 9/11 itself, as if Oskar's grief is any more intense because his father died in such a public way.
It's the quieter, more personal aspects of the story that are far more moving, especially as the plot takes some lovely twists in the final act. But Daldry and screenwriter Roth seem even more obsessed with finding a cathartic resolution than Oskar himself, leading to final scenes that feel tidy and a bit sappy. Even so, the film leaves us emotionally stirred in all the right ways.
Oskar Schell is an eleven year old genius who views the world differently to others. He is also a Francophile, an amateur inventor and a pacifist. He's very close to his father and together they make it their mission to find something from every decade of the twentieth century in what he called a 'reconnaissance mission.'