Louder Than Bombs‘ namesake, perhaps derived from The Smith’s 1987 compilation rock album, may be a bit of a misnomer. For Joachim Trier’s somber chamber piece is, for the most part, an inordinately quiet and subdued piece of filmmaking. Focusing on a family in mourning, Trier is more attuned to the words not spoken and that period of time before that strained communication builds up to the surface; before the emotional bombs start to go off so to speak. For the Norwegian filmmaker making his English-language debut (he previously directed the internationally respected titles Reprise and Oslo, August 31st), his latest is compassionately observed, sensitively performed and if intentionally lacking in catharsis marks an elegant addition in the subset of indie melodramas centered around the process of grieving.
It’s been a few years now since Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a once brilliant and highly regarded war photographer has passed away. Her ghost, however, looms large on widower Gene (Gabriel Byrne), adult son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and teenage son Conrad (Devin Druid), all of whom are floundering to various degrees in their own right. A terrific asset for Louder Than Bombs right from the start is in the casting choice of Huppert. Isabelle, as a character construct, requires an actress of steely-eyed intelligence and assured resolve, but also of great mystery – a woman, perhaps, who is unknowable even to those she held closest. Huppert may only appear in brief flashbacks but is such an enigmatic presence – one that reads diametrically icy and open at once – it seems reasonable a family would be haunted forever by such a loss.
A retrospective of Isabelle’s work – conducted by a former colleague (David Strathairn), who may or may not have been closer to the late photographer than earlier let on – attempts to bring Gene closer to his two sons, both of whom are detached in their own ways. Jonah, a sociology professor who has just welcomed his first child is too reserved and shell-shocked to even slightly reveal how fatherhood is freaking him out – it’s not a good sign that for the first week of newborn’s life he treks back home. While Conrad is either a typical angst-ridden teen or a secluded outcast in need of immediate help, or so Gene presumes. Trier and co-screenwriter Eskil Vogt embroider Louder Than Bombs with divided viewpoints, branching the film off into three separate narratives on how Isabelle’s death – as well as the somewhat debatable circumstances of which – have resonated with the men in her life. The intellectual trick, as well as some of its somewhat cold emotional remove, lies in the contradictions of the points of view of Gene, Jonah and Conrad.
The stiffest of the two narratives belong to Gene and Jonah. It’s not for a lack of graceful precision on the part of Trier as a filmmaker nor a deficiency from the performers, but both segments somewhat strain credibility and become less engaging as the film wears on. For instance, it’s a bit interesting (and perhaps a nod towards the literary) that Gene spies on Conrad, believing his son is rife with guarded pain but his story is dragged by an unspoken dalliance with one of Conrad’s school teachers (played by a wasted Amy Ryan). Jonah, by contrast, is the one drastically closer to self-destruction, but seemingly uses his intelligence as a mask. Both Byrne and Eisenberg deliver gently nuanced, subtle takes but neither character particularly feels completely lived in. There is a humorous aside to Byrne’s wacky 1987 comedy Hello Again that is unexpected but priceless, for whatever that may be worth.
It’s in Conrad’s story, however, where Louder Than Bombs truly comes to life. The trajectory of the character seems fated nearly from the start – either as a casually moody but mostly put together nerd or a seriously troubled loner on the verge of Columbine-like mayhem. It’s a welcome and near complete surprise that Conrad is neither. Beautifully acted by Druid (he previously appeared in the HBO mini-series Olive Kittridge), Conrad is at once the most centered and impetuous of his grief-riddled family and easily takes after his late mother. It may be fitting that Trier seems to stack the story in his favor since Conrad is essentially a burgeoning artist, a thoughtful if decidedly off-center creature who thinks of nothing at sending a confessional diary chapter to a popular girl at his school who he’s never directly spoken to before. In return, Trier’s visual aesthetic shifts dramatically – it’s freer, sharper and more fanciful as if Conrad is the pure unadulterated id (and the life force) of the movie.
Yet even in its sloggier bits, Louder Than Bombs, in its collection of interior moments, is sensitively handled and made with honorable precision. The crisp photography of Jakob Ihre, unobtrusive editing of Oliver Bugge Coutté and gentle scoring of Ola Fløttum aid in articulating an intelligent variant in the genre of all-is-not-well domestic melodramas; Trier’s previous two films – Reprise and Oslo, August 31st reveled in similar terrain. Trier’s patient and clear-eyed European aesthetic may frustrate or perhaps even grate some movie-goers expecting a geyser of emotion and a harping of lessons learned along the way, but this is cinema at its quietest and most observational. Louder Than Bombs just needed a bit more of Conrad’s punch along the way.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Little is lost in translation in Joachim Trier’s English-language debut feature – the Norwegian filmmaker did study at the National Film and Television School in the U.K. – a handsomely modulated and well-acted melodrama centering around a family still in mourning years after the death of their enigmatic matriarch. The material could read as sappy, earnest or sentimental based on log line alone, but Trier is more attuned to quietly (at times a bit too quietly, perhaps) observe his characters and intellectually dissect how the lives of three men have both changed and remained stagnant in the aftermath of loss. Sometimes heady, sometimes a little too obtuse for its own good, Louder Than Bombs nevertheless is meticulously made and generously performed by a rich ensemble cast, especially by young actor Devin Druid who delivers the film’s standout performance.