Louder Than Bombs
Grief drama cripples three men with a bad case of the feels
Louder Than Bombs (2016)
Directed by Joachim Trier
Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Isabelle Huppert, Jesse Eisenberg
Louder Than Bombs, the English-language debut from Norwegian director Joachim Trier (Reprise; Oslo, August 31st) starts by introducing us to Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), a young academic whose wife has just given birth to their first child. Wandering the hospital in search of food following the delivery, he stumbles randomly across his old high school girlfriend Erin (Rachel Brosnahan from “Manhattan”). Her mother has just passed away from cancer. In a bumbling attempt to explain what he’s doing in the hospital, Jonah only manages to get out “Well, my wife ...” Assuming the worst because of her recent experience, Erin embraces him and offers her sympathies. Unexpectedly happy for the intimate contact and too embarrassed to correct her, Jonah doesn’t bother telling the truth. This tiny encounter is representative of Louder Than Bombs as a whole. The film is a glum but vivid paean to sadness and grief—one in which people’s own myopic emotions frequently blind them to what others are saying, feeling and doing.
Three years before that emblematic encounter in the hospital, Jonah’s mother Isabelle (French legend Isabelle Huppert) died in a car crash. It’s an incident most people now acknowledge was more suicidal than accidental. Isabelle was a famous photojournalist with a habit of hanging out in international war zones and capturing the worst of human atrocities. It is this constant exposure to death and indifference that may have contributed to Isabelle’s premature passing.
In addition to Jonah, Isabelle left behind her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne), a former actor now trying to break out of his shell of grief and reconnect with his youngest son, Conrad (newcomer Devin Druid). Conrad seems like your typical alienated high schooler. But are the nights spent hiding in his room playing video games just typical teenage ennui or a mask for the confusion and pain he’s felt since his mother’s death.
With a major museum retrospective of Isabelle’s work looming in New York City, Jonah shows up to help sort through his mom’s personal effects—which have been sitting untouched in the family home since her death. But even this simple gesture is tinged with a hidden sense of despair. What is Jonah doing moping around his sad-sack father and surly younger brother when his lovely wife has just given birth?
Trier (who also co-wrote the screenplay) chooses to tell this story in poetic terms, drifting occasionally into the minds of its characters, allowing them to narrate the film for a period of time and giving vision to their dreams, fantasies and memories. Even with its knotted-up storylines of loss, pain, infidelity, suicide and depression, the drama is slow-simmering. Trier stirs the pot gently, allowing each of the three main characters to drift to the surface organically, concentrating on each for a short while before moving on to the next. Rather than spell out a short, easy path to emotional catharsis—as is generally par for the course on this kind of film—Trier simply lets the characters and their situations speak for themselves.
Trier is an observer, not a manipulator. In crafting each scene—be it a long-brewing confrontation between father and son or the hazy memory of a dearly departed mother and wife—Trier includes a wealth of rich details. Although the overall arc of the film is miniscule, individual scenes are beautifully complex. How much effort you put into picking apart each scene will determine how much you actually get out of this film, however. Since the filmmaker declines to offer much in the way of answers, explosions or conclusions, many audience members will find the overall effect too melancholic and unresolved.
The acting is both pained and precise. Byrne’s intensely Irish face seems particularly suited for this kind of grief porn. Huppert, though reduced to a string of flashbacks, is never less than mesmerizing on screen. Amid the impressive cast (which also includes Amy Ryan and David Strathairn) Jesse Eisenberg stands out the most. Probably because his deeply understated acting is in such stark contrast to his last bout of uncharacteristically awful scenery-chewing in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. In truth, though, he’s done better work (in Noah Baumbach’s tonally similar The Squid and the Whale, for one). This is probably the fault of the screenplay, which works fine on a scene-by-scene basis, but is almost too diffuse in the long run to sweep audience members up in its trajectory. For now, anyway, we’ll chalk Joachim Trier up as a fine director with an eye for the small stuff but a middling screenwriter with a blind spot for the bigger picture.