Films about suicide and depression tend to be maudlin affairs. Everything is bleak. Everything is dark. There’s a tendency to be so solemn and self-important that you only create a mood and forget to tell a story. Louder Than Bombs, the third feature film from writer/director Joachim Trier, avoids these pitfalls. The characters are more than mere portraits of grief who remain emotionally static. The film is as much about moving on and recovering from loss as it is about being paralyzed by the loss itself.
Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) was a war photographer who always captured the pain and humanity behind the conflicts she covered around the globe. Her work distanced her from her family not just geographically, but also emotionally. As the weight of her work became too much to bear, she drove her car into on-coming traffic resulting in suicide by tractor-trailer rig. Her husband, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), and elder son, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), know the truth. Her younger son, Conrad (Devin Druid), does not. When a colleague of Isabelle’s (David Straithairn) plans to release a career retrospective on her work which will include the truth behind her death, father and older brother debate whether Conrad should be told the real story of his mother’s death.
Louder Than Bombs is presented as a mosaic, a cinematic jigsaw puzzle. The film skips effortlessly from past to present and back to the past. Each scene fills in the gaps in the audience’s knowledge until we have a clear understanding of this family and its demons by the time the credits roll. Since Pulp Fiction and Memento gleefully played with the idea of chronology, every other film in theaters seems to have adopted this broken timeline approach of story-telling. It’s no longer a novel idea. However, in the case of Louder Than Bombs, the novelty is how well the technique fits the subject matter. A simple linear storyline cannot capture the nature of memories and perception as effortlessly as this fragmented style of story-telling. Faulty assumptions and misunderstandings factor heavily into the narrative, and the disjointed chronology accentuates the impact of those plot beats.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Jesse Eisenberg dials down his neurotic, fast-talking George Costanza schtick and plays an actual relatable person as Jonah, the son with a child of his own who’s inherited his mother’s tendency to abandon the ones he loves. Isabelle Huppert’s performance is perfectly modulated, playing the matriarch of the family as distant, almost enigmatic. The audience’s struggle to understand her and her motivations mirrors the confusion of her on-screen family. But, the stand-out performance is Devin Druid as the troubled teen in the family. Just when you think Conrad is yet another sullen, belligerent screen teen, the astute script by Trier combined with Druid’s performance peel back the layers of Conrad’s personality, making him the key character in the film and possibly one of the more interesting teenaged characters on-screen since Sutter (Miles Teller) in The Spectacular Now (2013).
Louder Than Bombs is one of the first films of 2016 that I am eager to see again. With the secrets of the narrative revealed upon a first viewing, the subtleties and shadings of the screenplay and the performances should prove even more effective during a re-watch. In a world filled with endless content options, my wanting to watch Louder Than Bombs a second time may be the biggest compliment I can give this film.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.