Her absence has been felt around them since she died, and they still struggle with themselves while barely connected with each other. As a somber drama about one problematic family dealing with the void left by their loved one, “Louder than Bombs” looks closely at its main characters as they come to face a certain fact, and there are thoughtful emotional moments to admire for low-key sensitivity reminiscent of “Ordinary People” (1980). Although it is not entirely successful especially during its third act, its emotional base remains strong thanks to its good direction and performance, and we come to care more about their characters’ emotional difficulties.
Before her sudden death, Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) was a renowned photographer who was always ready to fly to any dangerous conflict areas. She had an ex-actor husband who gave up his career and took care of their two sons while she went around the world, and she and her family had been happy together despite her frequent absence. Sadly, she had a fatal car accident not long after her retirement for spending more time with her family, and we come to learn later that there is something her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) decided not to tell his younger son Conrad (Devin Druid).
Now three years have passed, but Gene and Conrad have remained distant to each other without much interaction. As a patient and understanding father, Gene tries to come closer to his son, but Conrad, who still feels angry and hurt for his mother’s death, usually stays away from his father while mostly occupied with online video games whenever he is at home. Although he is understandably exasperated by this, Gene keeps trying to understand his son none the less, and we get little humorous moments involved with his failed attempt to connect with Conrad.
Meanwhile, there will soon be a memorial exhibition for Isabelle to be held by her colleagues including Richard (David Strathairn), who frequently worked along with her for his reporting jobs. Planning to write a New York Times article for remembering Isabelle, he notifies to Gene in advance that he is going to present her as honestly as possible in his article, and that means he will certainly talk about that accident.
In case of Gene’s older son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), he seems more focused on moving forward with his own life, while taking his first step as not only a college professor and but also a father. The opening scene shows him being with his wife and their first child at a hospital, and he is surely happy to carry his baby daughter in front of his wife who has just given birth to their child, but his face suggests other feelings to us as the camera calmly observes him alone in an elevator for a while.
Helping his father sort out the remains in his mother’s workplace initially looks like an easy job to be handled within a few days, but Jonah finds himself agitated by his accidental discovery of what Isabelle kept hidden from her family. He also begins to feel less sure about his life than before, and there comes a funny, intimate scene where he confides many of his private feelings to his ex-girlfriend whom he previously happened to come across at the hospital.
Occasionally shifting the position around its partially non-chronological narrative, the movie is often a little baffling during early scenes, but then it gradually builds up its emotional momentum as letting us getting to know more about its complex human characters. While trying to help Conrad as much as he can, Gene has been at a loss about himself, and that led to his unofficial relationship with Hannah (Amy Ryan), who works with him at the same high school and is currently Conrad’s English literature teacher. Behind his incommunicative attitude, Conrad, whose name instantly reminds me of the troubled adolescent hero of the same name in “Ordinary People”, is a smart, sensitive kid who has let himself isolated with emotional issues, and we are not surprised to see him committing a striking act of insult at one point. Although he is not that close to his younger brother, Johah gives some pep talks to Conrad, and there is a poignant scene when he gives a small advice to his brother as someone who probably had a similar high school experience in the past.
The movie is the first English feature film made by Norwegian director Joachim Trier, and he made a successful transition here on the whole. As he did in his previous work “Oslo, August 31st” (2011), Trier earnestly and effortlessly establishes story and characters via small moments and tiny details, and he also tries a number of wonderful visual moments such as a haunting stream-of-consciousness sequence which reflects Conrad’s detached mind revolving around what might be the last living minute of his mother.
Trier also draws solid performances from his cast members. While Isabelle Huppert hovers around the movie, Gabriel Byrne is reliable as an understated master of depressed feelings, and Jesse Eisenberg and newcomer Devin Druid are believable as two brothers who have known each other for years. David Strathairn has a nice scene when his character is visited by Gene later in the story, and Amy Ryan is rather under-utilized in comparison, though this wonderful performer has more things to do here compared to her recent thankless supporting jobs in “Goosebumps” (2015) and “The Infiltrator” (2016).
While Trier’s acclaimed debut work “Reprise” (2006) did not impress me much due to its distant cerebral storytelling, I was touched a lot by his next movie “Oslo, August 31st”, which I chose as one of my best 10 films of 2012 with no hesitation. In terms of achievement, “Louder than Bombs” is somewhere between them, and I was involved in its drama although being distracted at times by its few heavy-handed aspects including overused narration. His third work may be a mere test run, but Trier did far better than my recent clumsy driving attempts at least.