The best way to describe Joachim Trier’s familial drama Louder Than Bombs – a contender at last year’s Cannes Film Festival – is to deem it organized clutter. There are essentially three character threads of significance bound together by the profound effect one individual has on each. A man and his two sons (perhaps a more fitting title) reunite to discuss an upcoming Los Angeles Times profile piece on the late matriarch of the household whose presence is more tangibly felt in death than ever before when alive. A cross-generational examination of reconciling death in an attempt to reclaim one’s lost identity, Trier nurtures each character’s journey in equal measure. In doing so, the audience experiences irreparable trauma from the perspective of a teenager coming into his prepubescent own, an adult in the process of “settling down,” and the reflective elder forced to sacrifice all human desires to maintain face for his ungrateful children. Louder Than Bombs is dysfunctional family drama at its most demoralizing, though it’s probably no coincidence that the most complex and gratifying character POV happens to be the one with the widest room for self-healing.
Our avenue into this chaotic clan comes by way of Jesse Eisenberg’s Jonah, a new dad who cannot fathom tackling fatherhood until he faces the demons of his past that have risen up again upon hearing news of his late mother’s upcoming biography spread. Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), mother to Jonah and Conrad (the sensational Devin Druid who recently had a memorable cameo in House of Cards), and estranged wife of high school teacher Gene (Gabriel Byrne), committed suicide years back but her death was publicly declared the result of a car accident…until now. Isabelle spent years on the front lines of the Iraq War as a conflict photographer, capturing the aftermath of collateral damage which horrified the world but made her an invaluable global asset. This dedication turned into an addiction of sorts to war a la American Sniper’s Chris Kyle, creating a gulf between Isabelle and her husband. Consequently, Isabelle made the transition from mother to emotional stimulant for her two sons, who treasured her without judgment and became resentful towards their father for pressuring Isabelle to give up her career.
What I appreciate most about Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt’s screenplay is how it leaves the motivation behind Isabelle’s suicide a mystery. Was Gene’s insistence that Isabelle remain home to fulfill her obligations as a parent to blame or was it the nightmarish encounters that came with Isabelle’s profession that led her to take her own life? The film’s refusal to answer leaves it all the more realistically confusing for the three guys at the center of it who must navigate through their grief in unison if they ever want peace of soul. Death doesn’t make sense, and it will only aggravate the more a person approaches it from a fixated place of rationality.
The disorderly jumps from past, present and future – all linked together by the corporeal phantom intrusions of Isabelle – are expertly edited, seamless in their transitions and useful in understanding each family member’s personal journey of sorrow. The film’s numerous dream segments aren’t filtered but contain enough thematic pulp and visual allure to be viewed as vital to the narrative unraveling. More tightly constructed than your average experimental film from Cannes, Louder Than Bombs pulsates with purpose and endless rumination.
The star-studded cast is surprisingly subtle with their respective acting approaches, abstaining from scene-chewery shenanigans or the type of confrontational histrionics movies of this nature would regularly feature. Gabriel Byrne breaks our hearts as Gene, a man vilified by his sons for merely being alive. He so desperately wants to reconnect with his children but also needs some emotional sustenance to keep the fight going. Predictably, Eisenberg plays the most deplorable of the trio, prone to procrastinating, deflecting and using others as a means of numbing his guilt. Unlike most egocentric Eisenberg performances, this one’s lack of spitfire monologues gives audiences a chance to see the type-cast actor at his most humanly raw. Even though the personality layers are still mostly off-putting, at least Eisenberg’s acting is dimensional enough to invest in this go-around.
Huppert is the most starry-eyed of the bunch, gliding through the film while the others trudge along in exasperation. In both Louder Than Bombs and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Huppert’s rebellious disposition she instills in her characters instantly attracts attention. Magnetic and deeply watchable, if at times a tad cavalier, Huppert is once more a compelling cinematic force of nature. However, the true superstar of the film is Devin Druid, who plays the socially repressed Conrad with realistic callousness towards authority for reasons understood. Far from just being an angst-ridden teen who simply needs the touch of human contact to turn his world around, Conrad reminds us all that life is simply a collection of moments we can’t shy away from if we’re to experience it to totality.
Because Conrad’s arc is so thematically dense and ultimately fulfilling, pretty much all else of Louder Than Bombs pales by comparison. As soon as you start becoming swept up in Conrad’s coming-of-age odyssey, the family infighting and overstuffed backstory become a nuisance to the tale. That doesn’t negate from the film’s overall effectiveness of experiencing various mindsets on the same topic, but it does mean Louder Than Bombs loses some focus as soon as it finds a better path to take to the end. Nonetheless, Louder Than Bombs is an unexpected surprise of a good film, likely to be listed at year’s end as one of the best to fall below the radar.
The Orchard is releasing Louder Than Bombs today, April 8th, at West Los Angeles’s Laemmle Royal Theater and West Hollywood’s Sundance Sunset Cinema with a national rollout to follow. Be sure to check out the film’s trailer below!