In Louder Than Bombs, his English-language debut, Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier (Reprise, Oslo August 31st) revisits the themes of his previous two movies — coming-of-age, creativity, depression, suicide — with great eloquence and furious, delicate beauty. The story revolves around an upcoming exhibition of the work of the war photographer Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), who died a few years earlier in a car crash.
Her husband, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), and her oldest son, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), know Isabelle committed suicide by driving into the path of an oncoming truck. But her youngest son, Conrad (Devin Druid), who is now a teenager, still believes it was an accident. A journalist (David Straithairn) who worked with Isabelle is writing an advance of the exhibit. He warns Gene that his story will reveal the truth about her death.
The bulk of Louder Than Bombs, which Trier co-wrote with his collaborator Eskil Vogt, takes place during the few days leading up to the publication of the article. But the movie spans several years in the family’s life, with artful flashbacks and surreal montages — storytelling techniques that come off as crutches in most other films — gradually filling in the events that led to the dysfunction that has paralyzed Gene’s relationship with his two sons.
Even though the narrative becomes smaller and more specific as the movie unfolds, the emotional intensity of Louder Than Bombs grows stronger as we come to understand its damaged, searching protagonists. Here is a drama about a troubled family that builds not to a crescendo of screams and confrontations, but toward empathy and understanding. Trier has a gift for capturing the complexities of human behavior with the depth of a novelist. In Oslo August 31st, a recovering drug addict is so overcome by disappointment he commits suicide, overlooking the importance he played in the lives of other people.
Louder Than Bombs presents us with a woman who takes her life because she’s aware of how much her husband and sons love her. The fact that we’re able to understand that contradictory impulse is a testament to the movie’s compassion. Trier, who turns 42 this year, is young enough to be steeped in popular culture — the role-playing video game Skyrim plays a critical role in the movie — but he has an old soul: Jonah’s unspoken panic about becoming a father, or Gene’s reaction when he confirms his suspicion that Isabelle was unfaithful, feel personal and lived-in. But the most intriguing character in the film is the confused, tormented Conrad, who initially comes off as the kind of troubled adolescent who will end up riddling his classroom with bullets. By the end of Louder Than Bombs, he’s just one of us — someone who simply needs to love, and be loved in return.
Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Jesse Eisenberg, Isabelle Huppert, Devin Druid, Amy Ryan, David Straithairn.
Director: Joachim Trier.
Screenwriters: Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt.
An Orchard release. Running time: 109 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, violent images, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.