Following the acclaimed Reprise (2006) and Oslo, August 31st (2011), anticipation was high for Joachim Trier’s English language debut, the family drama Louder Than Bombs (2015). Unfortunately, the accompanying blast of reaction following its Cannes premiere wasn’t as clamorous as expected. In fact, it could barely be heard. Gabriel Byrne plays Gene, a teacher and failed actor who is barely managing to hold his family together following the death of his wife, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) in a car accident that was actually a suicide. His eldest son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) is a precocious young sociology professor, whose wife Amy (Megan Ketch) has just had their first baby.
Jonah’s younger brother Conrad (Devin Druid) is a morose, slappable teen who goes to the same school as his dad, stalks around with headphones and plays computer games – when not dancing freakishly to eighties music and writing helpful voiceover diaries. He nurses a healthy resentment of his father and dreams of his dead mother, an enigmatic figure who appears regularly in flashbacks and dream sequences: a war photographer who spent most of her time on the front line recording atrocities and massacres to the heartfelt neglect of her family. An exhibition of Isabelle’s work is to take place in an art gallery in New York while a former colleague (and who knows what more) Richard (David Strathairn) is planning an article to accompany it in The New York Times, which will reveal the true course of her death.
Jonah, in the meantime, has returned to the house without child but with the sneaking urge to visit an old flame he met by chance at the hospital when his daughter was born. Whether he is doing this just because of attraction or in an attempt to sabotage his own marriage is unclear. Gene tries to reconnect with both sons, but Conrad is obstinately hostile and Jonah, although apparently well-adjusted, has a passive aggressive way of getting what he wants and denying reality. The acting throughout is excellent and it’s a pleasure to see two greats like Byrne and Huppert play out their relationship. However, Eisenberg’s casting only evokes memories of Noah Baumbach’s superior The Squid and the Whale (2005).
The screenplay by Eskil Vogt and Trier feels two contrived, inventing a whole set of problems for its characters. Why Gene needs to hide his affair with a fellow teacher, two years after the death of his wife, is a bit of a mystery – if it’s not simply to give him a secret to be discovered similar to other secrets to be discovered. Isabelle’s career as a war photographer is not only an easy way of freighting her character with integrity and depth, but gives Trier an opportunity to show some stunning images and give a visual counterpoint to the leafy suburbs of upstate America (so leafy, in fact, that Gene and Conrad appear to live in a treehouse). This use of the Third World and war-torn areas in general – the repeated shots of children being buried by their parents – begins to feel tasteless beside the mitherings of teenagers and the middle-age anxiety of a high school teacher. Even Isabelle’s anxiety about her devotion to a dangerous job and the sacrifice she makes of her family are breathtakingly trivial compared to the suffering she records.
There is a wit and intelligence to the dialogue, especially in the exchanges of Conrad and Jonah, the former dispensing relationship advice. “I’ll never lie to a girl” says Conrad to which Jonah replies, “Yeah, good luck with that”. What’s more, Trier has an original style – cheerleaders are thrown into the beautiful blue sky – but the Norwegian director’s apparent hankering after the gorgeous or striking image can turn fatal car crashes into gorgeous slow-motion ballets juxtaposed with photographs from Afghanistan. As the family resolves problems of the film’s own making, the satisfaction gleaned is relatively minor. The threatened and/or promised explosions fizzle out frustratingly, leaving behind the lurking impression of Louder Than Bombs as a well-crafted, well-played, slickly-written misfire.