In Louder Than Bombs, writer-director Joachim Trier tells a story of irony. Isabelle is an acclaimed photojournalist who repeatedly and voluntarily travels to the Middle East to work. She leaves behind two sons and her husband, to whom she’s forever promising to slow down. But Isabelle’s experience whenever she comes home mimics that of many soldiers’: She’s restless, knowing that there are still life-and-death situations overseas that need to be communicated to the rest of the world. And she has difficulty adjusting from a war zone to stateside suburbia: “You feel like you’re in the way,” she says in voiceover. “Like you’re in the wrong place.”
And when she does slow down, after having survived her incredibly risky beat, Isabelle is killed in a car accident less than a mile from her home.
The film begins two years after Isabelle’s (Isabelle Huppert) death. An art gallery is hosting a retrospective of her work and consults her husband, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), about taking a look at any of her unpublished photos. Their eldest son, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), leaves his wife and newborn for a few days to help sort through her darkroom. Teenager Conrad (Devin Druid), meanwhile, plays video games, sulks, and shuts out his father whenever he tries to talk to his son.
And that’s a problem because, in addition to things already being prickly between the three of them, Isabelle’s New York Times colleague (David Strathairn) is writing a biographical piece about her show that will include a significant fact that Conrad doesn’t yet know.
Trier (Oslo, August 31st) and co-scripter Eskil Vogt occasionally tell the story unconventionally. There are flashbacks, of course, as well as surrealistic moments in which Isabelle appears in the present. But the filmmakers also play with voiceover, having Gene, for example, relate some events in the third person as if he’s reading his memoir, or Isabelle narrating in first person as if she’s reading her journal. Even a very minor character gives a bit of narration. But besides these instances, the film is voiceover-free, with musical cues also predominantly absent in favor of silence that ratchets up the tension.
And in one case, a scene that we first see from Gene’s perspective is later replayed from Conrad’s. It gives us insight into what each character knows about the other that could otherwise be expressed only through dialogue. It’s an intriguing tack, but Trier doesn’t stop at that: As Conrad sits in a class one day, we actually get inside his head, witnessing his aching, obsessive replays of every detail of his mother’s accident as he imagines it happened.
Conrad is clearly the most walled-off of the family, but Jonah is a close second. He’s more communicative but not necessarily nicer to his dad than Conrad is, turning down his offers to talk or get something to eat in favor of immediately diving into his mother’s stuff, solo. Jonah’s attitude is not necessarily all-business; he’s protective of her work, not wanting the gallery to discover Isabelle’s unseen photos before the family does. Along with strained father-son relationships, the script weaves in the theme of strained marriages, with Gene having had rough patches with Isabelle and Jonah experiencing dissatisfaction now.
Louder Than Bombs may be a bit theatrical in its telling, but its ever-present, if largely low-lying, gut punch rarely feels unrealistic, thanks to minimal dialogue in favor of quietly fraught scenes as well as the cast’s strong performances, with the four main characters projecting the walking wounded to various degrees. If a quibble is to be named, it’s a plot contrivance involving Gene and his new lover that doesn’t seem organic but a cheap trick to steer the story in a certain direction. Up until that point, Gene comes off as too smart to do something so stupid. Yet considering this is a portrayal of an imperfect and struggling family, perhaps the misstep does belong wholly to the character and not to the script itself.
Louder Than Bombs opens Friday at the Angelika Pop-Up and Avalon Theatre.