A wrenching and intimate tale about the criticality of communication, and the collateral damage of deceit, in the wake of loss.
Louder Than Bombs
In Louder Than Bombs, Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) was a world-renowned war photographer who risked her life in pursuit of an endless string of perfect shots. She didn’t always come out of the war zone unscathed, but she always came out. It’s ironic, then, that despite surviving countless dangers around the globe, she wound up the lone fatality of a single-vehicle car crash in a cozy New York suburb. Three years later, a retrospective of her work is being organized, and her widowed husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) has been tapped to display his wife’s photographs; he enlists the help of his grown son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg).
Complicating matters is a New York Times piece set to be written in advance of the showing by Isabelle’s former colleague, war reporter Richard Weissman (David Strathairn). The piece will reveal that Isabelle’s car accident was no accident at all, but rather a suicide, something Gene is fully aware of. Not only would Gene prefer to keep a more positive memory of his wife at the forefront of the celebration in her honor, he would rather his younger son, the teenaged Conrad (Devin Druid), not know the truth about his mother’s death.
Louder Than Bombs, the first English-speaking film from Norwegian director and co-writer Joachim Trier, sets itself up to be a significant melodrama. All of the pieces are there and ready to be played.
There is Gene, the widower and father of two who, thanks to the retrospective being organized in his wife’s memory, must do more than face life’s small daily reminders of a love lost—he must immerse himself in the life she lived. He must look at every photograph she took and know that he’s seeing her life, a life she spent far away from her family, through her eyes. This takes its toll on Gene, which in turn takes its toll on how he handles his relationship with Hannah (Amy Ryan), his coworker and lover.
Next is Jonah, who is a lot like the old man and not just because they’re both teachers. When Jonah is faced with an event of overwhelming emotional magnitude, he also makes poor choices. In this instance, his wife Amy (Megan Ketch) has just given birth to their first child, but when the frazzled new dad scours the hospital halls for a vending machine, he runs into an old girlfriend. Their hug lasts almost as long as the lies he tells.
Conrad, whose life is challenging enough as a teenager without a mother, has all but disconnected himself emotionally from his father, opting to live in a world of loud music and online gaming. He’s awkward and introverted and everything one would expect from a 14-year-old in his situation, but he’s also undaunted in his secret love for his classmate crush, the cheerleader Melanie (Ruby Jerins).
Even Richard, the war correspondent, brings more to the story than just the byline on the revelatory posthumous profile of the revered photographer, wife, and mother.
Again, all of the melodramatic pieces are there, but much to his credit, Trier never plays those pieces the way most would expect them to be played. Instead, the filmmaker lets his characters progress through subtle developments that require the viewer to stay keenly attuned to the little things they say and do, rather than waiting for the next bombastic outburst to occur. A lot of that character progression is negative, but it’s genuine, and it’s fueled by the fatal flaws the trio shares—a wicked combination of denial, deceit, and dreadful communication. Watching them fool themselves and others isn’t like watching people spiral out of control and perish in a fiery crash. It’s more like watching people slowly dissolve. Only Conrad, despite (or perhaps because of) his youth, offers a glimmer of hope with his unflappable crush on Melanie and his refusal to be anything but the person he is. Husbands, fathers, and sons make poor choices that carry with them the potential for irrevocable consequences, and yet just like in real life, they can’t stop making those choices; it’s in their nature.
And what about Isabelle? She appears in flashback and in dreams, but she is more mystery than matriarch. Yes, she was a loving mother and wife, as well as a successful war photographer, but beyond that (and beyond the suggestion of depression), little else is known about her. This is a terrific move by Trier, because it maintains a sense of wonder about who this woman was and why she meant what she meant to the men in her life. To explain more would have done a disservice to the character. In the role, Huppert is mesmerizing, and Trier knows how to capture the best of her, including a long, lingering, dialogue-free close-up of Huppert as she stares down the camera, leaving you wondering what she is thinking about and hoping you’ll have the chance to learn.
The rest of the cast is excellent, anchored by an amazing performance by relative newcomer Druid as Conrad Reed. Byrne and Eisenberg may have (combined) decades more experience than Druid, but they need him to be great more than he needs them to be great, and he delivers.
Louder Than Bombs is a wrenching tale about the criticality of communication and the collateral damage of deceit in the wake of significant loss. The film has barely a false note in it, hardly a moment when a character says or does something that demands to be challenged, and only the ending left me disappointed as ringing somewhat hollow. Still, despite the questionable destination of the tale, the journey is completely worth it.