Tolstoy’s deathless line from Anna Karenina—“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—doesn’t take into consideration that, within those unhappy families, even the individual members might not agree about what makes their broods so dysfunctional. Siblings can see their parents from very different perspectives depending on gender or birth order; likewise, parents might have a skewed view, their opinions shaped by their marriage and by memories of their own childhood. Unhappy families are unhappy in their own way—and depending which family member you ask, there are plenty of reasons as to why.
Louder Than Bombs, the delicately affecting new drama from director and co-writer Joachim Trier, dives deep into the secrets of one unhappy family, and it’s to the film’s credit that it never tries to convince us that these characters’ melancholy lives are somehow more profound, tragic, or important than anyone else’s. With quiet focus, Trier details the slow, modest catharsis of a father and two sons who are only now, three years later, addressing the loss of the family matriarch. No one has a scene-chewing blowup, and there really aren’t any major revelations or plot twists. Instead, Trier gets us hooked on the small little mysteries of how individuals fundamentally cannot see their shared families in the same way. That’s tragic and profound enough.
The film stars Jesse Eisenberg as Jonah, who has just become a father. As Jonah is looking for food for his pretty, bedridden wife Amy (Megan Ketch), he wanders through the hospital and encounters Erin (Rachel Brosnahan), an ex-girlfriend whose mother has cancer. Confused, Erin thinks that Jonah is there because his wife is dying, too, and, inexplicably, he doesn’t correct her, gladly accepting her warm embrace. This random, fleeting encounter between former lovers is an early indication of the film’s niggling discontent—but also a clue into how different perceptions can change how situations are understood.
From there, Louder Than Bombs’ central story comes into focus. Jonah’s mother Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a war photographer, died in a car crash three years ago, and a retrospective of her work is being planned in New York. Isabelle’s widower Gene (Gabriel Byrne) has been tasked with helping to pick out images from her personal collection, but he’s not sure he’s up to it and asks his elder son Jonah to come home and assist. At the same time, Gene is worried about his younger son, Conrad (Devin Druid), a teenager living at home who resents his father and is worryingly withdrawn. Gene hopes Jonah might be able to reach the distant Conrad, not fully aware that both sons dislike him for their own reasons.
There is an unknowable question at the heart of Louder Than Bombs—was Isabelle’s fatal car accident actually a suicidal act by a depressed woman?—but Trier leaves it unanswered, allowing it to eat at the other characters. Making his English-language debut after two strong Norwegian dramas, Reprise and Oslo, August 31st, Trier remains interested in the dynamics between people who know each other well—and how that supposed intimacy can leave room for lots of ambiguity, tension, and uncertainty.
In Louder Than Bombs, Trier illustrates this by fracturing his timeline, moving deftly between the present, the past, dream sequences, and alternate interpretations of the same scenes so that we gain greater insight into what we’re observing or, sometimes, become less sure of the details. Some critics have complained that the film, which premiered in competition at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, lacks an emotional center—that the film is just a collection of different story threads that never quite come together. But having seen Louder Than Bombs twice now, I find that absence to be intentional and effective. Trier keeps his distance so that we’re never entirely sure what to make of what we see, purposely refusing to fill in the full picture. And that noticeable void at Louder Than Bombs’ core is the space where Isabelle resides, haunting it like a ghost.
Huppert gives a performance that’s intensely ethereal, which is appropriate considering that Isabelle is portrayed in the film as not being quite real. Depending on who is remembering her, she can be cold or seductive, incredibly hip or thoroughly forlorn, but the actress never lets us doubt that these are all just different aspects of the same character. Louder Than Bombs isn’t a Rashomon-style investigation—there’s no “right” answer to the riddle of Isabelle—and Huppert imbues this photographer, wife, and mother with an aura of inscrutability that can’t be pierced. Nonetheless, we see the spell she wove over each of the family members, as Jonah, Gene, and Conrad all seem handicapped by her death—although we also get the sense that, were she still alive, she might have maintained her enigmatic, somewhat distant hold on them regardless.
After his disastrous turn as Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman, Eisenberg returns to firm footing here as a bright, composed young man who may jeopardize his new family in pursuit of a past love. (We haven’t seen the last of Erin.) But the reasons why Jonah considers such an option is left vague, although it’s easy enough to guess his motivations. Druid plays a familiar troubled-teen character—Conrad’s so obsessed with violent video games and ineffectual around classmates that it’s understandable when Jonah asks him half-jokingly if he’s going to shoot up his school. But in a sign of Louder Than Bombs’ emphasis on complicated, unresolved characters, Conrad never answers his brother, and even when his personal storyline goes in unexpected directions, we’re not sure what will become of him.
That unknowing applies to everyone we see in Louder Than Bombs. There are many ways such a tasteful, fragmented family drama could go wrong. Artificially amplify the stakes and the movie could come across as pretentious. Insist that the family’s woes are some sort of grand metaphor for the human condition and you risk drowning the proceedings in significance. And in its broad outline, Louder Than Bombs calls to mind plenty of previous family-is-hell films, Trier’s use of multiple story strands practically guaranteeing that some characters never spark our interest. (Amy Ryan, who plays Gene’s new lover, is saddled for the third straight film, after Bridge of Spies and Goosebumps, with the thankless mom/wife/girlfriend role.) The problem with a film this delicate is that it can sometimes come across as brittle, its minute observations about family and relationships too slight to fully register. But there’s a deep well of feeling that flows beneath everything we see in Louder Than Bombs. And when the film’s ghost finally has her say, those emotions come pouring out with surprising power.
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