Louder than Bombs
Directed by Joachim Trier
Opens April 8
It feels a little unbelievable, and very unfair, that Joachim Trier is just three films into his career. The pogoing Reprise (2006), the city symphony Oslo, August 31st (2011) and now Louder than Bombs, about a father and two sons living through the aftershocks of their wife and mother’s death, are the works of a sensibility prolific in intellect if not productivity, even as they focus consistently on depression and grief, and progressively seamless in the way that they synthesize name-drops, flourishes of filmmaking technique, and clever storytelling gambits. After the dorm-room postmodernism and creative ambition of Reprise, about young aspiring novelists, and the chokingly close-knit bourgeois-bohemian Nordic social network of Oslo, about the last 24 hours in the life of a suicide, Louder than Bombs is Trier’s first English-language film, and it also has a somewhat more familiar Ameridine template. It’s about “the stories we tell,” about family as a web of converging and diverging memories and narratives to be reconciled, through a dramatic arc comfortably like therapy, with its story beats of slip-ups and blow-ups on the way to closure. But moment to moment, it buzzes with excitement.
The Reeds, who live in a modernist house in Nyack, are father Gene (Gabriel Byrne, a teacher and former actor (we see a clip of the awkward young Byrne opposite Shelley Long in Hello Again…); Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), a tenure-track sociologist and new father at age 28, who in the film’s first scene wanders anxiously through the corridors of the hospital, trying to find a cafeteria or vending machine so he can provide some sustenance to his wife; and high-school student Conrad (Devin Druid), who pines after a cheerleader, plays fantasy MMORPGs, and cocoons himself in headphones, though we never hear what he’s listening to. Every filmmaker knows you put headphones on a mopey teenager so you can build a subjective slowcore soundscape out of muffled background chatter and some moony pop song, preferably in a continuous follow shot of the back of the kids head as he walks through a school hallway full of out-of-focus peers. Withholding Conrad’s soundtrack is Trier’s fresher, more subtle way of showing the parallel tracks the three Reed men are on.
All three of them, in their separate ways, are missing Isabelle, who died five years ago in a car crash. Isabelle is obviously forbidding—she was a renowned war photographer, and, even more to the point, she’s played by Isabelle Huppert. An impending gallery retrospective and big profile in the Times Friday arts section prompts father and sons to clean out Isabelle’s darkroom, and grapple with the psychic clutter attached to the piles of contact sheets and family snaps. Trier’s characters are always putting stuff out into the world, their artistic creations and influences giving his films layers of reflection and texture. Isabelle’s political engagement, and the digressions into the glamorous historical and epistemological charge of her foreign-correspondent work, make the character seem elevated and apart in all the differently inflected flashbacks she shares with the love-starved baby of the family, her intellectually ambitious older son, and her isolated almost stay-at-home husband (as well as with David Strathairn as her colleague and fellow nomad). Yet even as she haunts the movie, La Huppert plays vividly against type, bringing out Isabelle’s capacity for joy, moroseness, insecurity and sexual vanity. (In a further demonstration of her range and emotional volatility, Huppert is, for perhaps the first time in her filmography, called upon to smile broadly and wrap a small child in a big hug. Imagine!)
Eisenberg, an actor with a telepathic understanding of the neuroses his filmmakers wish him to embody, brings specificity to Jonah’s (perhaps predictable) quarterlife crisis, flipping down his laptop screen like a man closing the lid of a public toilet with the toe of his shoe in order to end a Skype call with wife and child, and developing a convincing register of verbal winces to show the weak points in his hyperarticulate defensiveness. (The dialogue, by Trier and fellow Norwegian, Eskil Vogt, is generally supple enough to allow the actors to seem knowing.) But the film’s heart is Conrad, and Druid is appropriately semi-opaque even as the hinge of many of the film’s most inventive moments: surprising displays of teenage mood swings; montages encompassing favorite YouTube videos (real-life slapstick and time-lapse decomposing bird corpses) and movie clips (anime and Argento); narrative switchbacks showing events from multiple perspectives; and especially the film’s frequent and fluid use of voiceover, which often seems to shift or straddle perspective, as when a passage his crush reads aloud in English class turns out to be a literary expression of his own internal monologue. Trier slips unobtrusively into an American milieu, but then again, the terrain of Louder than Bombs is largely mental, and frequently hormonal or otherwise restless, and thus a perfect match for this eager, prolific filmmaker. Trier’s cinema is ionized.