I can't stress enough that watching Joachim Trier's films is like reading really good books, that he might be the most literary (not in a superficial sense) film director working today. With each new film, Trier and his writing partner Eskil Vogt, show what mature, gifted writers they are.
Their English language debut, Louder than Bombs, is a finely tuned chamber piece about grief and family dynamics. It is a great American film that brings out nuanced, beautifully drawn, rich characters just under two hours and would give Jonathan Franzen a run for his money. The title comes from the Smiths' album which was the US only released compilation, taken from Elizabeth Smart's prose poem By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. It's an apt title to illustrate the state of internal grief felt by the characters. The film is so beautifully written and acted, I can't find a single false note.
The Reed family is grieving the death of the family matriarch, a strong willed war photographer, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert). Her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) is a gentle high school teacher who had been always supportive of Isabelle and took care of their two sons while she's away in the war zones. Josh, the elder son (Jesse Eisenberg), who just became a father himself, has his mother's traits - smart, driven, but has an air of a boy who grew up too fast. Then there is Conrad, the younger son (Devin Druid), an unresponsive, always plugged in high schooler.
Even though she's gone for two years, Isabelle is always present through numerous flashbacks, dreams and even has her own narrations. Things get a little complicated when Isabelle's colleague and former lover Richard (David Strathairn) is about to publish his article on her in New York Times and mention her suicide, a fact Gene never told Conrad about. As Josh comes home to take charge of Isabelle's photos in her untouched studio, it slowly becomes clear that the visit is an excuse for him to get away from his nagging wife and the new born. The three men have to deal with their grief in their own way.
As Trier and Vogt explored before in Reprise, Bombs deals with the consequences of being a talented, driven person. Many fail to balance work and relationship. For Isabelle, her work was like an addiction, no matter how much she kidded herself with the notion of family life. Not that she was an uncaring mother, but she was unhappy, feeling that she wasn't needed every time she came home and at the same time felt guilty for being selfish.
Gene, who gave up his acting career to take care of their sons, never found his place in the world and doesn't really know how to connect with his growing/grownup sons who worshiped their mom and in turn resented him. Although Josh would never admit to anyone, he regrets having to grow up too fast and made rash decisions undoubtedly because of his mom's death. Conrad daydreams and makes up scenarios how his mom really died and lives in his head most of the time.
Acting is superb throughout: Byrne exudes warmth and patience in an anti-patriarchal character that is rarely seen in American films. Added to his arrogant, intelligent kid he always plays, Eisenberg brings vulnerability in a basically a not showy supporting role. But it's Druid who is truly phenomenal as a weird kid who is much more mature than he seems. And of course, Huppert, again, makes her presence felt, even with limited screen time, playing an enigmatic, complicated woman.
Despite its heavy subject matter, Louder Than Bombs contains many humorous moments involving Conrad's crush on one of the school's popular girls while Josh matter of factly discouraging him that it would never work out ('been there done that' defeatist nerd talk) and Gene trying to connect with Conrad through a role playing video game resulting in hilarity. And just like in his two previous films, Trier uses fast moving montage sequences that signify meaningful moments in characters' lives (over Conrad's confessional essay) that are truly beautiful and touching.
Dense yet lively, touching but not corny, mature and intelligent without being showy, Louder than Bombs is a rare gift of a movie. So good!
Louder than Bombs will open in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, April 8. A national rollout will follow.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com
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