Film Review: Louder than BombsIn this lacerating family drama (which has nothing to do with The Smiths, by the way), the best cast you will see in any film this year fights through the emotional collateral damage of a self-destructive war photographer’s possibly purposeful death.
There’s probably no better sign of the West’s solipsism than the fact that after years of roiling strife in the Middle East and elsewhere, our artists and audiences seem at the moment less interested in stories about those catastrophic conflicts than stories about how they impact the Westerners who report on them. Memoirs, plays and films, from Body of an American to Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, have reinvigorated the sub-genre of stories about Westerners finding meaning in exotic, faraway lands. Only now, the main character is less likely to be a do-gooder with a sense of mission than a war journalist with a long, dark streak of romantic self-destruction who is not so much reawakened by their experiences as they are traumatized and broken.
Louder than Bombs, the striking new film from Joachim Trier, is yet another of those stories. The setting, in the tree-lined streets of a high-net-worth suburb just north of Manhattan, is filled with all the cultural signposts of the well-heeled intelligentsia who inhabit these kinds of films. But its lattice of emotional complexities and clear-eyed view of the characters keep the film from falling down the familiar sinkhole of narcissistic self-reflection. Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) is an award-winning war photographer whom we first see in a video tribute created after her death in a car accident. Her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) is still not dealing with any of the consequences of her death some two years on. Meanwhile, his two sons, college professor and new father Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and teenager Conrad (relative newcomer Devin Druid, in a quietly scorched-earth performance), have been tamping down the pain for so long that they’re starting to crack. As a gallery puts together a retrospective of Isabelle’s work, Jonah comes home, ostensibly to help sort through her material. But really, he’s there to hide away from the world with his brother and father and ignore both the responsibilities of being a new father and the implications of the likelihood that, as Isabelle’s colleague Richard (David Strathairn) puts it, her death probably “wasn’t really an accident.”
Trier and his co-writer Eskil Vogt give us just enough of Isabelle in a series of smoothly integrated flashbacks to make her disappearance from this family all the more painful. A slightly aloof and stark presence, her character is worn like a glove by a blazing-eyed Huppert, whose slow-burn agitation has rarely been put to better use. Her dialogue is spiky but stretched out with periods of silence that speak almost as loudly as the stills of her work—a mix of different photographers, relying heavily on the work of the late Alexandra Boulat—whose brutal honesty would seem to be a mirror of her personality.
Of course, Isabelle had secrets, just like everyone in the film. Gene is having a clandestine affair with Megan (Amy Ryan), which registers as surprisingly healthy, except for the inconvenient fact that they’re both teachers at Conrad’s high school. Jonah has not only essentially run away from his wife and new child, but he’s finding himself drawn to an old girlfriend (Rachel Brosnahan). For Conrad’s part, he’s busy skulking around town with the sullen demeanor, permanently affixed headphones and hooded eyes of the addicted online gamer who will inevitably make at least one character joke (well after the audience has thought it) about him being a school shooter in the making.
Trier’s last film, the jittery and downbeat addict drama Oslo, August 31st, was also engaged in characters with these kind of passively self-destructive and dark trajectories. But the intersections are more sharply hinged in this film, and acted out with a uniform excellence. Although every actor here plays to their strengths, from Huppert’s Biblical prophetess to Ryan’s fulsome decency to Eisenberg’s stiletto selfishness, it’s Byrne who carries the film. More often than not relegated to roles that play off his romantically dour visage, Byrne finally gets paired with a director who effectively channels his more openhearted and benevolent side. Emotionally stunted as Byrne’s Gene is, that’s no more the case than with any of the rest of these teachers and students and artists. His clumsy attempts to bring his estranged sons closer, at the same time that he’s unwinding himself from Isabelle’s dark embrace, are powerfully affecting.
Although the wars of the Middle East reverberate through Louder than Bombs, the film never claims (implicitly or explicitly) an equivalency with the inner turmoil of these comfortably upper-middle-class characters. Trier shows Huppert tangling with her worries over the usefulness of her work; one shot appears to validate that response when she catches a man looking at a particularly anguished shot of hers in the paper and then flipping calmly past to another story. But this is a drama that also acknowledges context. There might not be actual bombs going off, but death is death no matter where it happens, and in Louder than Bombs nobody gets away uninjured.
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