Louder Than Bombs


Director by Joachim Trier

Starring Gabriel Byrne, Isabelle Huppert, Jesse Eisenberg, Devin Druid, Amy Ryan

Film Review by Andrew Moore

Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s third film (and his first in English) is an accomplished piece about an upcoming photo exhibition, retrospective and article on a revered deceased photojournalist Isabelle Joubert Reed (Isabelle Huppert) by the Times newspaper. It examines the effects of this on the subtle equilibrium of the remaining family member’s lives as they tear backwards burrowing into the past. Whilst the film has far more adult scope to it, it certainly sits well as a big brother to 2011’s excellent Oslo August 31 which ended in a suicide, whilst Louder Than Bombs in turn deals with the aftermath of a suicide. Sharing its sense of lingering poignancy with Trier’s previous film it’s a very intimate affair, we are on the inside watching failing family members, there’s older brother Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) who chooses a circumstantial lie (leading to a later infidelity) within hours of his son’s birth whilst later at the family home discovering evidence of his mother’s infidelity. Then there’s father Gene’s (Gabriel Byrne) misdemeanours such as hiding from sensitive younger son Conrad (Devin Druid) his affair with his teacher Hannah (Amy Ryan) whilst procrastinating upon an even bigger truth, that of the true circumstances surrounding his mother’s car crash which thus bears down on him as the countdown to the exhibition ticks away (and what will be its truth revealing article). What is supposedly gone was never more present (if it was ever gone at all).

The true tide of a history of withheld truths and their effects seem to filter down on the young Conrad to the greatest extent and sadly the only real truth we see in the family is in Conrad (and that truth is suffering), far younger when his mother died and who unlike his father and older brother is unaware of the circumstances surrounding his mother’s death (believing she fell asleep at the wheel). To this extent we witness much of the film through his eyes; he seems to unluckily have become the lowest common denominator on the trajectory of truth (the fate of the youngest child?). His father’s concern is revealed early on in a scene where he follows him after school. What’s interesting is Trier shoots this first from his father’s perspective, then far more revealingly from Conrad’s, and later still further light is shed (and not without humour) as Conrad reveals in conversation with his older brother his knowledge of his father following him at the time and the reasons behind his actions. All this serves to emphasise the sense of distance between the father and his youngest son, his inability to reach him. He has even tried to covertly connect with Conrad through the online gaming world (but his son’s character slaughters him instantly). Furthermore, that Conrad is unaware of hidden past events doesn’t mean he is unaware per se (as is revealed in his writing which he shows Jonah) – the repressed effects borough up through him. Of course all of this is ultimately bringing us to the exhibition of his mother’s work (with the revealing article) - the exhibition is the litmus for all the film’s events.

We can see Louder Than Bombs as a film that is essentially about fallout, the trajectory of damage. The effect of a catastrophic event, bad as it of course is, often pales into insignificance against the effects and influence it creates and projects forward (and retrospectively as well) – hence the title, ‘Louder than Bombs!’ Of course there are wider contexts here too. The mother has spent her life documenting suffering, stealing, framing and editing images of it, whilst spending long periods away from her family, having an affair with her fellow photojournalist and then ending her life in what some would consider a selfish act of extreme violence without consideration for others. Did her career infect her life and then her family’s too? Have moral compasses been left askew, truths been edited and cut (like war reportage) and silent conflict been imported? To bring the war home so to speak, and Conrad spends most of his nights fighting virtual ones online much to his elder brother’s concern (but then who’s he to judge)? In one scene from the past we see a young Conrad present his mother with a drawing he’s done of her in an explosion (given to her whilst she’s recovering in hospital from the circumstances of the explosion).

It should be duly noted that this isn’t solely a film about negative circumstances and their effect on the family, yes it shows imperfect people (who isn’t) dealing with an awkward past and buried truths that come to light, but also their attempts to find a way to go on from this point. Unlike Oslo August 31 we have a more positive beginning after the long journey to a rising dawn. Conrad eventually asks his dad “Am I really that hard to talk to” and prior to the exhibition the father openly talks with Isabelle’s ex colleague Richard (David Strathairn) about her affair with him and their line of work. After the exhibition the father drives Jonah (along with Conrad) back to his wife and new born child (because of course he belongs here – not hiding his family’s past) and this part of Jonah’s life has been woefully neglected by him! And so the three of them are travelling in the car together again, a point has been arrived at so to speak. Conrad is aware of his father’s relationship with Hannah but he is now more importantly aware of the true circumstances of his mother’s death (unlike all the imagined versions he’s created) which seems to be to his ultimate benefit. That said, subscribing to dreary cathartic epilogues isn’t the main premise of this story, its Conrad’s journey to the knowledge of the true circumstances of his mother death and the roles his family must play in this – Conrad’s legacy of truth.

The performances are excellent, in flashbacks Isabelle Huppert manages to appear a loving mother whilst also a determined detached one (and more often both at the same time) augmented by Gabriel Byrne as the suffering and often failing father grasping at the reins of family life. Devin Druid’s role as the young unstable emotional buffer for the family’s fault lines is played seamlessly as is Jesse Eisenberg’s role as failing equilibrium between them. I liked this film a lot, it sits quietly and allows you to observe it (I liked Oslo August 31st too for the same reasons) and whilst appreciating his style may prove divisive, Trier’s hypnotically subtle yet intense observational style and occasional dreamscape sequences reveals his characters, you remember them when you leave the cinema. Additionally, competent editing by Oliver Bugge Coutte means there’s never any confusion between past and present. After two Norwegian films (the other the equally impressive Reprise in 2006) and now his first English Language film (again with screenwriting collaborator Eskil Vogt) Joachim Trier has developed what I’d consider a confident directorial style he can call his own.

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