Louder Than Bombs
Directed by: Joachim Trier.
Written by: Joachim Trier & Eskil Vogt.
Starring: Gabriel Byrne (Gene), Isabelle Huppert (Isabelle), Jesse Eisenberg (Jonah), Devin Druid (Conrad), Amy Ryan (Hannah), Ruby Jerins (Melanie), Megan Ketch (Amy), David Strathairn (Richard), Rachel Brosnahan (Erin).
There is a fine line – different for most people – between thoughtful and subtle and just downright dull – and for me, Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs crosses that line. The talented Norwegian filmmaker – responsible for two other, highly acclaimed films (Reprise, unseen by me, and Oslo August 31, which deserved the praise) has made a dysfunctional family drama – the kind where a tragic event in the not too distant past affects all the survivors differently, and through the course of the film includes flashbacks to describe what happened. Done right, these films can be quite powerful – done wrong, and you get any number of Sundance films, drowning in quirk, which only want to elicit tears from the audience. At least Louder Than Bombs never goes that route. The problem is though, that despite strong performances from its excellent cast, there just isn’t much to Louder Than Bombs that makes the film stand out, or really stick in your mind. It’s far from a bad film – but it’s not one your likely to remember either.
The story revolves the family of an acclaimed war photographer named Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), who a few years ago retired from her career, and not long after died in a car accident that may not have been such an accident on her part. While her husband, Gene (Gabriel Byrne) and older son Jonah (Jessie Eisenberg) – who now, in the present, has just become a father himself – know what Isabelle did, their other son – Conrad (Devin Druid), a moody teenager, does not. It will eventually come out of course – mainly because a colleague of hers, Richard (David Strathairn) is going to write an article about her life and work to coincide with a retrospective of her work – and he has no intention of keeping how she died a secret. Over the course of a few days – a week maybe – the three men that Isabelle left behind from her family are all staying at the same house, but cannot or will not communicate with each other – at least not effectively. Meanwhile, we get the periodic flashback to Isabelle’s last little while on earth with all of them – and see the cracks that led her to her ultimate end.
There are things to recommend about Louder Than Bombs to be sure. Isabelle Huppert is one of the best actresses on the planet, and her work as Isabelle is strong – she plays a woman who loves her family, but feels disconnected from it – she’s better at being in a war zone than being a wife and mother, despite the effort she gives to it. A whole movie about her character may have been a lot more interesting. Eisenberg is in fine form here as well though – a man, already going through that new father crisis that is all too relatable, who is now plunged back into his old family drama (and the life of his old girlfriend as well) – and finds that easier to deal with than his wife and new child. I wish Gabriel Byrne had been given slightly more to do in the film – his Gene is trying to move on with his life – a teacher at the same school Conrad goes to, he has started to date another teacher there (Amy Ryan – completely wasted), although this is something else he cannot bring himself to talk to Conrad about. Gene’s role is marked by inaction – he finds things too difficult to talk about, and while he makes an effort, it isn’t really a good one. Then there is Devin Druid as Conrad – who certainly has the moody, incommunicative teenager thing down pat – although Druid’s performance is so inward, his expression so blank (perfect, in some ways, for a teenager) – that he is the film’s most unreadable character – which could be interesting, except his drama doesn’t seem to be all that interesting – even as the film tries to bring him out of his shell in the end. He may have the most screen time of anyone in the film – which is a shame, because he may be the least interesting one in the film.
The main problem with Louder Than Bombs then, for me, is what others find striking about the film. This is a film where everything happens beneath the surface – about characters who are unable to express their feelings to each other in any real way, so externally they shut down. Internally, however, they can be raging – and there are a few interior monologues and journals, read aloud, that tell us more about these characters than the rest of the movie does. The problem, for me, is the performances of the characters don’t quite match those monologues and journals – instead of making us see these characters in a clearer light, it makes you wonder just who these characters really are. The movie never devolves into the kind of cathartic fireworks we often see in these movies – scenes where characters yell at each other, that end in tears and hugs and reconciliation. Perhaps, we should be grateful for that, because those scenes often seem phony. The problem is that Trier doesn’t come up with anything else to replace those scenes with – so what we end up with is a very quiet film, where everyone keeps everything buried that ultimately leads nowhere.