A young boy is narrating a scene of a funeral, where he yells that there is no reason to have it because it is just an empty box. He says that at the rate the population increases, that soon there will be so many dead people there won’t be room for the bodies. He suggests that they bury the dead in a reverse-skyscraper, hundreds of stories deep, below the buildings, and he muses that it would be nice for people to be able to take an elevator down below and visit their dead relatives.
This is Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), the only child of Thomas (Tom Hanks) and Linda (Sandra Bullock), who live in NYC. He is extremely intelligent, but has unusual fears and phobias and doesn’t like talking to people much. He explains that he was tested for Aspberger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, but that the test was inconclusive. Oskar lives with his mom, and his paternal grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) lives in the apartment building across the street; at night, he calls her on his walkie-talkie and they have private conversations. Thomas was killed in the attacks on the WTC on September 11th. This has added more phobias to Oskar’s life, and he shakes a tambourine to help relax him when he is confronted with any of the stressors.
Oskar and his dad went on “expeditions” in the city together. Thomas planned them so that Oskar would have to overcome a phobia (ie: talking to strangers) to solve the puzzle. Linda wonders if he is making them too much of a challenge, but Thomas knows better. He told his son that originally NYC had 6 boroughs, but the 6th one was carried away and never found. Oskar is skeptical about this, but Thomas asks if the clues can be wrong: strange ph levels in the lake in Central Park that can’t be explained, a note found under the swing, etc. They work on this expedition together nearly every weekend. Oskar reveals that the last conversation he ever had with his dad was about the expedition.
FLASHBACK TO 9/11: The children in Oskar’s school have been sent home, and all they are told is that “something happened”. He stops for a juice on the way home, oblivious to the chaos around him. He enters the apartment, and hears a message from his dad. He sees there are several on the machine. Oskar hides under a bed, and when the phone rings, he doesn’t come out to answer it. It is his dad, calling form the 106th floor of the WTC, hoping that they are all right, and telling them that he loves them and he is ok, waiting for firemen. Oskar narrates that if the sun exploded, it would take 8 minutes for us to know, as it is that far away. So, while the sun hypothetically would be gone, we’d still see its light and feel its warmth for 8 minutes after it is already gone. He relates this to his father’s death: he wants to stretch his 8 minutes of memory of his dad as long as he can.
CURRENT DAY: One night, Oskar hears his mother talking on the phone, and while she is busy, he goes to his dad’s closet, which remains untouched since his death. He looks in pockets, reads receipts, and climbs up to look at things on the top shelf. A box of old film doesn’t intrigue him, but an old camera on the shelf does. As he pulls it down, the strap pulls a blue vase with it and it falls to the floor, breaking into pieces. Inside is a small envelope, with a key inside. Oskar is sure his dad meant for him to have this, and that it will lead him to something he needs to know. He uses the walkie-talkie to ask his grandma if she knows anything about a key, but she does not.
At his grandma’s house, there is a mysterious man renting a room there since right after 9/11. He hardly ever comes out, and grandma warns Oskar that if he ever sees The Renter (Max Von Sydow), don’t say anything, as he gets very angry. The Renter doesn’t speak, ever, says his grandma. This intrigues Oskar, and he looks at the locked door, wondering.
Oskar knows that his grandma doesn’t know where her husband is; Thomas has explained to Oskar that when he was born, his dad couldn’t be a father and left, and Thomas has no idea what his own father looks like, or anything much about him.
Oskar takes the key to a locksmith, who is only able to tell him that it is 20-30 years old. The locksmith notices something Oskar overlooked: the envelope has the word “Black” hand-written on it. They both think that Black is the name of someone, and they must know his father, and will know what the key is for.
The doorman (John Goodman) gets lots of phonebooks for Oskar, as he tells him he needs them for a school project about the censuslie #1. Oskar starts counting the lies he tells to solve the mystery of the key. He cuts out all the names/numbers of people with the name “Black”, and organizes them by zones. He makes a map of the city, and with a grid, divides the names up and charts them all on the map270 different people.
On Saturday, Oskar begins his greatest expedition. He fills his backpack with supplies: his tambourine, a gas mask, binoculars, journal, camera, Fig Newtons, cell phone, and the key. His first Black is Abby Black, in Brooklyn. He walks, as public transportation makes him “nervous”, another one of his phobias. He lies to his mom, telling her he is going to a comic book convention-lie #2.
FLASHBACK: Oskar and his dad are in the park. Thomas tries to convince Oskar to get on the swings, but Oskar refuses, saying how dangerous they are. Thomas explains that he used to love the swings, and the 3rd swing was the best one. He would pump his legs so that he’d go so so high, and then let go and go flying out of the swing and land on the ground. Oskar is mortified, and refuses to even sit on the swing.
CURRENT DAY: Oskar is facing a challenge: to get to Brooklyn, he must cross the bridge. He is afraid of bridges, and won’t go. He shakes his tambourine, then a train on the bridge loudly approaches, and Oskar runs as fast as he can, across the bridge.
He finds the address, rings the bell, and no one answers. He rings and rings and rings and starts to leave, and finally a woman opens the door. It’s Abby Black (Viola Davis), and she is obviously sad about something. He asks if she knew his dad or anything about the key, but she does not. She reluctantly invites him in when he yells that he is extremely thirsty, and they talk a bit. Her husband walks by, on the phone, and doesn’t notice them. Oskar asks if he can kiss her, but she says that isn’t a good idea. So, Oskar takes her picture, to remember her, and she shies away, with her face behind her hand.
At home, Oskar crawls up to his secret hiding place: the cupboard above his closet. He has a shrine to his dad there, with photos, receipts, mementos and the answering machine. He plays the 9/11 messages from his father, listening to his voice. Oskar refers to September 11th as The Worst Day Ever.
FLASHBACK TO 9/11: Oskar is hiding under the bed, and his grandma comes in, calling for him. She spies him under the bed, and lays down on the floor to talk to him. Linda comes home, is crying, and asks Oskar if his dad has called. He lies and says no. Later that night, Oskar sneaks out of the house, runs down the street, and buys an identical answering machine. He re-records the greeting, and substitutes the new machine for the original one, and hides it at the top of his closet. He says he does it so no one will ever have to hear those messages again.
CURRENT DAY: Oskar goes to visit another Black. It is a family show sings with him and wishes him well on his journey. He begins to catalog the data he collects, and calculates that it is taking longer than he planned. He had allotted 6 minutes at each Black residence, but they talk much longer than that, trying to comfort him, and telling him their stories. They try to make him feel better, but he explains that he doesn’t want to FEEL BETTER; he wants to find the lock, to find his dad. He feels he is losing his dad, not finding him.
In the middle of the night, Oskar wakes his mother, frantic that when he dies that she not bury him. He needs to be above ground, like in a mausoleum. She tries to tell him that he isn’t going to die, but he gets frenzied, screaming that she doesn’t know anything, and then he freaks out and starts throwing everything n the kitchen, and trashes it. He yells at his mom that he wishes it was her instead of his dad who dies in 9/11, and she softly answers that she wishes that, too.
Oskar tries his grandma on the walkie-talkie, but she doesn’t answer…but a light goes on in her apartment. He flashes his flashlight in Morse code, and gets an answer. Oskar puts on a jacket, sneaks out, and runs to her apartment, and is shocked to see it isn’t his grandma, but The Renter who is waiting for him. Oskar asks him if he ever talks, and he opens his right hand, and on the palm it says “NO”. He asks if he is a criminal, and gets the “NO”. Oskar asks if he can tell him his story, and unloads the entire 9/11 story of his dad and their expeditions, and the mystery of the key and his project to go to all the Blacks and ask if they know. He gets agitated and manic as he tells the story, and The Renter writes on a piece of paper, “I’m tired. Go to bed.” And another note says, “Don’t tell Granny we met”, then ,”Would you like me to go look with you?” Oskar tells him yes, and they will go on Saturday.
FLASHBACK TO 9/11: Thomas calls Linda at work, and tells her that he’s ok. She is confused and asks where he is, and he says the WTC. She is worried, and tells him to find a stairwell and come home right now. Thomas tells her he absolutely loves her, and not to worry, and hangs up as others need the phone. She is scared, and grabs her bag to run home.
CURRENT DAY: Oskar and The Renter meet, and Oskar starts to walk, saying it is 11.3 miles, but The Renter points to the subway, and Oskar recoils. The Renter writes that he can’t walk that far, and goes down the subway stairs, and reluctantly, Oskar follows. He rides the subway with his gas mask on, and finally lets The Renter take it off him. Oskar remarks to The Renter, that for the first time since his dad dies, he feels like he has someone he can talk to.
They ring the bell over and over, and no one answers, so they leave. Next stop is near the water, and The Renter walks on the footbridge to the address, but Oskar won’the is afraid of bridges. The Renter walks partway back, leaves a note for Oskar on the railing, and leaves. Oskar pauses, then runs for the note: it says, “If you cross the bridge, I will tell you my story” and then he crosses the bridge. Oskar is frantic, shakes his tambourine, and runs back across the bridge….and sees a note with an arrow pointing ahead. He follows it to another arrow, and finally, it ends in a bar. The Renter is writing notes, gives them to the bartender, and he reads them to Oskar: they tell that he was born in Germany, lived in many places, was married and had a child. He was in a bomb shelter with his parents, and it was bombed, and they died. Oskar asks if this is when he stopped talking, and he holds up both palms, showing “YES” and “NO”. Oskar notices that The Renter shrugs his shoulders just like his dad did. He shares his juice box with him on the bus ride home.
Together, The Renter and Oskar have visited 37 Blacks. The Renter writes a note:”Why not take a day off and see a movie?”, but Oskar refuses, saying that nothing gets in the way of the search.
One of the visits is some type of warehouse, and it is full of locks, unused safety deposit boxes, and Oskar tried his key in each, getting more frantic with each one. He finds a big box of keys and spills it, in a fit of frustration. He asks The Renter of he thinks the key fits a lock and he shows “YES”. He asks if he thinks they’ll find the lock and he shows “NO”. They go home, and Linda Is out, so Oskar brings The Renter to his house. He brings out internet photos of people falling from the WTC; he has blown them up so much and thinks that one is his dad. Then he gets the answering machine, and explains that no one knows about thisThe Renter is the only one he is telling. He plays message #1, and tells about it: it is the first message his dad left on 9/11, and with the date/time stamp, Oskar knows that he was on his way to school at that time. He goes on, playing the next and the next, and The Renter is getting choked up; tears are in his eyes. After the 4th message, he writes “STOP! NO MORE!” but Oskar refuses and goes on. IT is so painful for them both, but Oskar needs to share this. Again The Renter begs him, “STOP! NO MORE!”, and Oskar doesn’t play the final message. He writes, “NO MORE SEARCHING”, and leaves. With his binoculars, Oskar sees him in his grandma’s apartment, with his suitcase. Oskar runs out, and finds him getting in a cab. The Renter holds up a note: “Wanted to help you, but I’m hurting you”. Oskar is still angry, and tells him to go, they won’t miss him, and he knows he’s his grandfather. The Renter leaves.
Back in his room, Oskar looks at the mementos from his father: one is a piece of newspaper from an expedition, where Thomas circled “not stop looking”. For the first time, Oskar flips the paper over and sees a phone number circled. He thinks it is a clue from his dad, and calls the number: He introduces himself as Oskar Schell, and the lady on the phone says, “Oskar? Is that you?” It is Abby Black, the first person he visited on his search. She comes to get him, and explains that the phone number was from an estate sale her ex-husband, William, had for his father’s belongings. She brings him to her husband’s office, even though it is late on a Sunday evening. Abby waits in the lobby, and Oskar has to ride the elevator (a phobia) alone. He shakes the tambourine again, and does it. He finds William Black (Jeffrey Wright) and the story of the key is explained: the vase was from his father, sold at the estate sale, to Oskar’s dad. His father had died, and written letters to everyone he knew, about his dreams fulfilled and things missed. He and his son were not close, and when he got his letter, he hoped it would say that he loved him…but it said to get the key from the vase, go to his safety deposit box, and it would explain. But the vase was already gone. He had been looking for that key for nearly 2 years. William asks Oskar if he’d like to go to the bank with him, and open it together, but Oskar says no thanks.
He tells William that on 9/11, he heard the phone, but just couldn’t answer it. He hears his dad say “Are you there?” over and over, but he just couldn’t answer it. He asks William if he forgives him, and William is confused, asking, “For what?” Oskar replies, “For not telling anyone”. William says of course, and Oskar says he feels much better. Oskar sees Abby waiting for him in the lobby, and inexplicably, runs away, screaming and shaking the tambourine, down the street. He runs home, and starts trashing all of his expedition stuff: the maps, the lists, the catalogs and photos. Linda tries to get him to stop, and he is in a frenzy. She tells him that she knows how proud his dad would be, that he never stopped looking. She also explains that she has known all along about his big project, and always knew where he was. In fact, she looked through his stuff, figured out his code, and copied his maps, with all the Blacks, and zones. She went and visited all the Blacks before Oskar did, telling them the story of Oskar losing his dad in 9/11, and what he is looking for, and to please be nice when he comes. He had no idea his mom had been mirroring his every move. He tells her he is impressed that she figured it out, he thought only he and his dad thought in that way. They talk about their loss, what they miss about Thomas most, and how much they loved each other.
Oskar narrates as he goes to the park, that he decided to write every Black he met, thanking them for their time, and sharing their stories and their losses with him. HE also tells him that he found where the key went, but that it wasn’t for him after all, but that the real owner probably needed it more than he did. He tells them that his dad said there used to be a 6th borough in NYC, but it floated away and never came back. He knows his dad is never coming back, either, and now he is ok. He thinks that would make his dad proud.
At home, Oskar left a handmade scrapbook titled “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” on Linda’s bed. Inside, he made pages of places they went to together, and things they shared. Each one was like a pop-up book and had a moving part. The last page was the WTC, with a black felt cloud glued on it. It had a red string to pull that was labeled “UP”, and when she did, it had stick figures of a man who went up to the WTC (not falling out, as he had seen on the internet), and she smiled.
At the park, Oskar suddenly ran to the swings. He found his dad’s favorite, the 3rd swing, and flipped it over: under a piece of duct tape was a note from his dad: “Congratulations! You’ve solved Expedition #6”, and went on to say that he celebrates his victory. Oskar sits on the swing, with the note clenched in his hand. He lifts his feet, then he leans, and the swing moves. He eventually pumps, and starts swinging, very slowly at first, and then, pumps with so much effort that soon he is high on the swing, soaring, smiling.
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