The fractious family of a father and his two sons confront their different feelings and memories of their deceased wife and mother, a famed war photographer.
After his award festival darling “Oslo, August 31st,” director Joachim Trier follows up with the English-language debut, “Louder Than Bombs,” displaying real filmmaking proficiency and firmly placing himself on the list of “Ones to Watch.” Darkly humorous and insightful, if overly convoluted, it’s a study of a family dealing with loss and coming to terms with each other, and themselves. If the plot sounds a bit familiar and “blah,” the acting from the four main leads, and Trier’s nimble directorial touch, save it from becoming just another low-key drama that disappears into the cinematic ether of granola indies.
Gene (Gabriel Byrne) is putting together a memorial for his celebrity war photographer wife Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), who died in a tragic – and mysterious – car crash. It involves an article/exposé, written by Richard (David Stathhairn), a journalist and Isabelle’s ex-lover (scandalous!). In the meantime, Gene’s older son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) comes home, in denial after having a baby, to revisit his past, to try to make sense of it.
Jonah’s younger brother Conrad (Devin Druid) is reclusive, constantly immersed into music (he wears noise-canceling headphones everywhere he goes), video games, and unadulterated resentment. While Jonah’s relationship with Gene is strained but at least amicable, Conrad refuses to even speak with his father, dreaming about the popular girl he loves and waking up to the ghost of his mother. Gene’s attempts to bond with Conrad reach an apotheosis, when the poor dad spends days creating a video game character, to attempt to reach out to his son in a virtual reality – just to swiftly end up decapitated.
Gene also happens to sleep with Jonah’s teacher, Hannah (Amy Ryan). “It’s uncomfortable,” she tells him, “looking at Conrad in class and thinking he’s just like the other kids.” The article gets published, revealing facts about Isabelle previously unknown to Jonah, leading to a series of incidents, where the characters’ lives get intertwined, and each protagonist goes through a process of self-cleansing.
Trier expertly handles sequences and fluctuations in tone, the film dexterously shifting between searing drama and dark comedy. I loved how Gene, concerned for Conrad’s well-being, spies on his son; he calls him, watching Conrad lie about being with friends, while alone on the playground swings, and then follows him to the cemetery, where the boy collapses onto one of the graves.
Other memorable scenes involve Conrad pulling a plastic bag over his head in a crazed attempt to isolate himself from his dad; Jonah and Conrad bonding over their father’s old soap opera footage and video games; Conrad’s diary montage – a haiku-like, lyrical insight into a troubled psyche (“Dad is everywhere… I swallowed a bullet. Maybe it’s still inside of me.”); a fantastic monologue Jonah delivers to Conrad during a cheer-leading practice that encapsulates everything one needs to know about teenage angst; Conrad confronting his teacher in front of his entire class, after finding out about her affair with his father.
You may have noticed that most of the sequences I described involve Conrad. That’s because in a film that sometimes feels a bit overstuffed and aimless, the young actor Devin Druid, known for his memorable appearances in TV’s “Louie,” manages to anchor the narrative with a realistic, tender portrait of teen angst, melancholy and grief.
The rest of the stalwart cast all get moments to shine. Every scene is haunted by the ghost of the mother, and Isabelle Huppert was the perfect casting choice – her naturally enigmatic, alluring presence dominates every shot. While Druid is the anchor, Huppert, appearing only in a few flashback and voice-over sequences, is the beating heart of the film. There is a moment where she spots her own photograph in a newspaper, casually being flipped by a stranger, and a single glance of hers speaks volumes about humanity’s ignorance. That’s Acting. Gabriel Byrne is always reliable, and here brings another understated, touching performance. Jesse Eisenberg shows range, toning down his “nerdy wise-ass” shtick. Amy Ryan and David Strathhairn both get their moments to shine in small-but-pivotal roles.
Therein lies the film’s flaw. Each of the characters is so compelling, a film could be made revolving around them – and yet “Louder Than Bombs” feels both overstuffed and sparse. Its moments of sublimity are powerful, but rarely get the chance to truly stand out – there’s just such a rapid succession of them! Let’s take a look at the multitude of story arcs: Isabelle’s intense journey as a war photographer, which leads to depression and a possible suicide; her family’s consequent dealing with her death; Conrad’s coming-of-age; Gene’s love affair with Conrad’s teacher; Jonah facing his demons, with the arrival of a new baby and ex-girlfriend (the one sort-of unresolved storyline that could’ve frankly been left on the cutting room floor); the brothers bonding after years of alienation; the infidelities that surface…Don’t get me wrong, Trier deftly handles each of the sequences with subtlety and gravitas – it’s just that the abundance of them makes the film lack a strong central focus. A lot of really good stuff is being thrown at you, but little of it truly sticks, unfortunately.
There are a few stylistic choices that leave you baffled. The voice-over narration by several characters feels tacked-on and unnecessary. The dreamy, artsy dream interludes jar with a pretentiousness absent in the rest of the film. Some scenes drag a little too long, while others – especially ones between Byrne and Huppert – made me long for extended versions.
That said, Joachim Trier’s film has plenty of moments of real gravitas, moments that resonate and ring very true. It’s about how our perception of people can alter based on circumstances. It’s about grief and reconciliation. It skillfully avoids sentimentality, which so many similar dramas get trapped into. Its melancholic narrative effortlessly cuts back and forward in time, and between parallel storylines, and if there are too many of them, it’s simply too much of a good thing. With his next feature, I hope the director scales back and focuses more on exploring one or two subjects, as opposed to twenty. I’ll be the first one in line.
In select theaters April 8th