Stephen Daldry’s (Billy Elliot) adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s best-selling novel is powerful and moving but undercut by a third act move towards melodrama.
The story, family-focused and non-political, about one boy’s journey to come to terms with the 2001 loss of his father in the Twin Towers, promises a moving journey with a unique point of view.
Newcomer Horn gives a fierce performance as Oscar, a young New Yorker somewhere on the autism spectrum (“they did tests, they were inconclusive” he says at one point) who’s fond of his father’s (Hanks) mysterious treasure trails they call ‘reconnaissance expeditions’. After 9/11, Oscar finds a key in his dad’s closet and embarks on a cross-Manhattan quest to determine what it opens.
Horn is superb; Oscar’s inability to confront what has happened and his fraught emotions are frankly presented, and his logical response to life’s illogic is palpable and empathetic. Max Von Sydow, as a mute older man who joins the young man’s driven detective work, brings some welcome comic relief, too.
As successful as Daldry is in presenting Oscar’s personal journey, he is less so with the journey at the film’s core – of a son and mother (Sandra Bullock) re-connecting. A third act reveal is deftly handled, and there are plenty of poignant moments – the key’s identity especially – but the move towards mawkish melodrama robs what could have been a most unique drama of some of its identity.