Joachim Trier’s sublime English-language debut, Louder Than Bombs, is an engrossing and empathetic look at a family recovering from trauma. Almost a year after she started singing the film’s praises at the Cannes Film Festival, here is Alex Heeney’s review of Louder than Bombs. This review is the third feature to be published in our week-long celebration of Louder than Bombs.
Read our two-part interview with director Joachim Trier here: part 1 and part 2. Read our interview with cinematographer Jakob Ihre here. Read our essay on exile in Oslo, August 31st and Louder than Bombs here.
Joachim Trier’s sublime English-language debut Louder Than Bombs is an engrossing and empathetic look at a family recovering from trauma. More experimental and broader in scope than Trier’s perfectly taut Oslo, August 31st, it’s still just as carefully judged. If you dig deep enough, they share DNA: a story about exile and the meaning of home; a story about how relationships are linked to time and space; and a story of depression, loneliness, and fleeting connections.
Re-teaming with his co-writer Eskil Vogt and cinematographer Jakob Ihre (Reprise, Oslo August 31st), Trier finds new cinematic forms to delve into the inner lives of three characters in the Reed family: the sensitive patriarch Gene (Gabriel Byrne) and his two sons — new father Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and socially awkward teenager Conrad (Devin Druid) — who are dealing (or not) with the death of family matriarch Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert). The film switches perspectives between the three men, like a fictional version of Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, as we try to understand what they’re going through. And like every Trier film to date, it left me completely emotionally destroyed, only increasing in potency with each repeat viewing.
Though tied together by grief for Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), the men are disconnected from one another, rarely even sharing the same frame. Yet they’re brought back together in their family home for the first time since her death three years ago thanks to a new retrospective of Isabelle’s war photography. A forthcoming New York Times article to publicize the exhibit will also reveal new information about how Isabelle died — something Conrad, who was twelve at the time, doesn’t know — which exposes old wounds.
The house itself is haunted with past memories of Isabelle’s life. Gene starts out in exile in his own home, always trespassing on Conrad’s or Jonah’s room, awkwardly standing at the back of the frame. Jonah returns to a home that is no longer his in order to run away from his new one with his new family. Yet he’s more at home in his mother’s old office than anyone else; he moves around it with ease and familiarity. Conrad is the most isolated of all, barely leaving his room where he exists in a cocoon built of headphones and his computer screen. Because the characters are isolated, closeups are pervasive in the film. The few two-shots we do get often show confrontations or disconnects, making it the loneliest frame of all.
Between flashbacks, montages, dream sequences, documentary footage, and other forays into the minds of its characters, Louder Than Bombs is extremely densely packed. On first viewing, it may seem like an amorphous blob. But there’s an ordered chaos to its almost chapter-like structure, which borrows from the conventions of television to tell a family drama big enough for the big screen. The film starts with Jonah’s perspective, like a prologue before the title card flashes. Then the film cycles through subjective perspectives: first Gene, then Conrad, then Jonah, and back again, on repeat.
Initially, each segment is clearly demarcated by a fade to black and a sequence that gets us in their heads — a memory, a dream, a tour through the world of a video game — before the linear plot can proceed. Yet once the brothers start connecting with each other and even with their father, their perspectives start to blur. Because they’re finally all in one place, in their childhood home, they start experiencing things together. They’re linked so deeply as to almost share a mind, just as soon as they start to let each other in. The film shifts between each of the characters’ perspectives more quickly, occasionally even skipping a step: Conrad’s segment might be just a single scene of him leaving school.
In one of Jonah’s chapters, he ventures into Conrad’s room to chat. Conrad invites Jonah to read a diary entry on his computer, which we experience as Conrad’s voice narrating a glorious montage of images — a masterful short film itself. But are these the images Conrad’s words evoked for Jonah, or the images Conrad had in mind? As a prelude to one of Jonah’s chapters, there are flashbacks to scenes between Isabelle and Gene, which Jonah couldn’t have experienced. Yet we see Isabelle’s reactions that Gene misses, so they can’t quite be Gene’s memory either. Perhaps we’re seeing some version of a story Isabelle told Jonah.
Though the three men have entirely different perspectives, they all hold complementary pieces of the Isabelle puzzle. Gene’s memories are clouded by her crippling depression. Her sons’ memories of her are less angry and more longing. Jonah remembers a radiant woman who leant on him too much; he blames his father for a lot of her challenges. Conrad recalls both her embrace and seeing her from a distance, peeking through sheets hanging out to dry in the afternoon sun or catching her tearful face from behind her seat in the car. Their memories, dreams, and stories help reconstruct and resurrect Isabelle, each with only a partial, imperfect, yet overlapping part of her story.
When we finally do get Isabelle’s narration of her point of view, it’s also a composite of perspectives. That’s how she exists in the present: as a fragmented memory. Isabelle lived two separate lives: one overseas at war and one at home. She was always longing for where she wasn’t, unable to connect entirely to where she was. Isabelle’s colleague and overseas lover Richard (David Strathairn) claims she wanted to make things work with Gene, which is why their affair never continued stateside; Gene says he never believed that. They’re both probably right, each told half-truths by the woman they loved.
Although the protagonists are all men, none of them conform to conventional gender roles. Gene gave up his career to cook and care for the boys while Isabelle went on dangerous adventures. Byrne portrays a sensitive man desperately trying to show his love but unsure of how. Jonah, the sociologist professor, fancies himself detached and rational, but he’s the least self-aware of all: he spends the film running away from his wife and newborn, chasing after the ghost of his mother. Eisenberg’s whispery line deliveries suggest a man forced to keep secrets but quietly seething. Yet he’s also gentle and sensitive. Conrad may appear introverted and laconic, but he longs for a deeper connection; newcomer Devin Druid imbues all his scenes with great feeling and sadness.
Each of the men cope with their grief through romantic relationships, which are both intrinsically about Isabelle and about a new stage in their lives. But the women aren’t mere props: we always understand their perspectives, and why their relationships with the Reed men are meaningful. Jonah temporarily rekindles a romance with an old flame, Erin (Rachel Brosnahan), who knew his mother and is dealing with her own mother’s recent death. Their fleeting connection is about time travel: sex offers them the intimacy and openness they need. Just like Isabelle’s affair with Richard, their connection makes sense only in this moment in their old stomping ground:The spell breaks for both of them at the same time. Brosnahan remarkably creates a whole history for both her character and her relationship to Jonah that makes you feel you’ve known her longer.
Because Louder Than Bombs is a film about grief, it may on the surface seem bleak. Old wounds never fully heal and catharsis comes in small drops, not big dramatic moments. But it’s a film about people who love each other even if they’re angry, people who are trying even if their efforts are fruitless. The closing shot is the first time we see all three men in one space together and in a single frame, headed into the future. It’s the polar opposite of a drug addict alone in his childhood bedroom, shooting up for one last time. Where the protagonist of Oslo, August 31st saw only despair, the Reed family has forward motion.
Read our interview with cinematographer Jakob Ihre here.
Read our essay on exile in Oslo, August 31st and Louder than Bombs here.