More often than not, men fall somewhere between ill-equipped and completely inept when it comes to sharing, processing and discussing their emotions. This is duly amplified when it involves coping with the unexpected loss of a loved one under traumatic circumstances. Louder Than Bombs, Joachim Trier’s first foray into English-language filmmaking, demonstrates a similar awkwardness, reticence and restraint as Gene (Gabriel Byrne) and sons Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and Conrad (Devin Druid), who grieve the loss of mother and wife, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert).
Trier, accompanied once again by co-screenwriter Eskil Vogt, has crafted a methodically paced examination of sorrow and memory whose incendiary material is all the more affecting for its composure, disquieting calm and normality, rooted as it is in their everyday lives. Past ills and long-buried truths rumble along on the periphery as a disjointed unit attempt to connect while remembering and attributing reason to the car accident that ripped the matriarchal centre of the family from them. With a retrospective exhibition on the life and work of famed war photographer Isabelle Reed in the offing and a revealing article by her former colleague (David Strathairn) to appear in the New York Times, Gene and elder son Jonah must navigate the thin ice of breaking the news to Conrad of what really happened two years prior.
Newcomer Devin Druid’s turn as the troubled, distant and disaffected teen is the real standout of the piece. Abrasive to the point of being obnoxious, his largely expressionless face is pierced by eyes that burn with indignation and deep anguish as he attempts to cope with the teenage angst of first infatuation while still reeling from the death of his mother. Byrne’s performance, as a father figure sat firmly at the inept end of the spectrum, is his best in many years. Unable to connect with Conrad on any level, even anonymously via online gaming, he enlists the help of Jonah who arrives to sort through Isabelle’s photo archives, piecing together the truth of a concerning final trip to Syria. Eisenberg, supercilious at the best of times, here becomes a father to a baby girl as the film opens. Wife and newborn are left at home and swiftly forgotten as Jonah’s apparent togetherness gives way to an equally disturbed soul, an adulterous digression his chosen coping mechanism. Trier expertly constructs temporal shifts that move between the past and present, flashbacks the building blocks of a backstory that are well assembled by the director.
With each episode divided by the silence of a black screen we are given pause for thought and recollection along with those onscreen. The slow-motion imagery of the fatal car crash and stillness of a stylised explosion whilst Isabelle is on location are held for long enough to have a twisted sense of peace and troubling beauty. Huppert’s character is the most thinly sketched but her ethereal, ghostly nature is well suited to a figure who casts a pall over proceedings without being physically present in the present. The overlay and replaying of scenes from different points of view, as well as wryly humorous internal monologues of thoughts not vocalised, create well-rounded characters elsewhere and a richly layered narrative. Louder Than Bombs’ initial blast may be mighty, but it’s the shockwaves that ripple out from its epicentre which resound and Trier’s film achieves a similarly long-lasting aftermath.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens