Director: Joachim Trier
Runtime: 105 minutes
Next to suffering, grief is one of the trickiest emotions to deal with in storytelling, especially when it involves conveying said story on film or TV. Each of us grieves in our own ways, but movies and TV tend to get trapped in a reductive binary. If you’re going to mourn on camera, you’ll either explode with histrionics (pulling of hair, gnashing of teeth, etc…), or let your emotions hibernate as you become a zombie. Exceptions to the rule, like Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs, are noteworthy because they capture grief as a spectrum. Norwegian director Trier, on his third film (and his first in English), continues to prove himself as an intelligent observer of complex emotional terrain.
Trier’s first two films were confined to the head-spaces of single characters, while his new venture tackles four. Oh, and one of them – photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) – happens to be dead. Yet she’s very much alive in the film’s flashbacks and dream sequences. Isabelle’s death hangs over the film, but Trier writes the role as more than a symbolic specter. Isabelle watches on from the past (and beyond the grave), her husband (Gabriel Byrne) and two sons (Jesse Eisenberg and Devin Druid) open up old wounds. Setting things off is the news that Isabelle’s former co-worker (David Strathairn) plans to reveal the real reason for her death in an article ahead of an upcoming tribute/exhibition at a museum.
It’s quite a leap in ambition, and one that could have easily left Louder Than Bombs feeling scattered and messy. There’s also the film’s tone, which keeps things as quiet as possible at all times (from the performances to the music and the sound work). At first, Trier seems stuck in the cinematic grief binary, leaving his characters to wander around upstate New York morosely, often alone and shielded by headphones.
Yet even with the sense of distance that pervades every sleepily-lit scene, Trier and Eskil Vogt’s script gradually blossoms into a thing of restrained beauty. Rather than try to capture every ounce of the grief spectrum, Bombs pries open one side and reveals its nuances, of which there are many. What’s left unspoken or left hanging is just as important as the words, and the screenplay – along with Trier’s deft, un-showy visual sense – manages to stealthily dig into the core of four deeply layered (and traumatized) people. The biggest, potentially explosive moments are filtered through a noise dampener. It’s less immediately compelling, but it also aids the film in developing its characters with the precision of a laser-cutter.
Every bit as detailed and intelligent are the performances, which are uniformly excellent from the central quartet to smaller roles filled out by invested and committed actors (Strathairn, Amy Ryan, Rachel Brosnahan). Trier plays around with how he groups his actors together, yet there’s no combination that feels like a weak link. Byrne and Eisenberg have a genial relationship that eventually hits some rather nasty bumps, while Byrne and Druid start off barely speaking to each other at all. And Isabelle’s interactions with the men in her life are each as complex. Byrne is quietly dignified throughout, never trapped by potential limitations of a stoic widower. Huppert is, as ever, a formidable screen presence, capable of blending steely independence with shattering vulnerability. Druid is the surprise of the cast, holding his own against an impressive array of better known (and more experienced) faces. The film climaxes, to an extent, with his character’s arc, and Druid keeps the frustrating aspects of the role completely in line. Ditto for Eisenberg, whose character does and says some truly horrendous things (in many cases, the cruelty comes from what he and the audience, but not other characters, know).
These vantage points converge in fascinating ways, and Trier never lets them fall out of balance. Louder Than Bombs is somewhat fragmented in structure, but the flow from one segment to the next never misfires. The emotional complexity on display is, in the film’s own quiet way, fascinating. Trier and Vogt’s juxtapositions are thought-provoking and informative without giving too much away throughout. From the almost too-distant beginning to the incomplete completion of the ending, Trier’s film ebbs and flows according to its own haunting, perplexing rhythms.