Louder Than Bombs
Directed by Joachim Trier
Screenplay by Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt
Norway / Denmark /France, 2015
Grief, depression, and loneliness. Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s first foray into English-language film is rife with subject matter suited for a dour art house affair. Yet Louder Than Bombs is infused with a vibrant humanism that cares for its characters and has a firm grasp of cinematic language and exceptional editing which ratchets it up a notch past a typical prestige drama. It’s too subtle, too bold, too willing to reach into a grab bag of visual styles and character set pieces to care about falling into the right Hollywood genre.
Capturing the depression and isolation of Gene Reed (Gabriel Byrne), and his two sons Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and Conrad (Devin Druid), several years after his wife Isabelle, a war photographer who (Isabelle Huppert) died in a car crash, Louder Than Bombs manages to straddle the line between experimental and accessible. Using a variety of techniques to tell the story, it’s a fluid narrative which flits back and forth, not only in time, but in people’s headspaces. A classmate reads aloud from a book in Conrad’s English class, which then naturally transitions into a voiceover as Conrad lets his mind wander – “time suspended” – as he imagines his mother’s last moments and thoughts before her death. Few other filmmakers have given birth to a visual representation of our trains of thought as well as Trier does here.
Trier’s camera is light on its feet, building a steady rhythm that occasionally bursts into jazz like tightly controlled, yet somehow improvisational drum solos, layering dazzling visuals and music together with an experimental narrative in a way that gives hope for the future of mainstream cinema; evidence of the trickledown effect of lesser seen, yet highly influential art house works over the year. The scene mentioned above is one example, or a CGI reconstructed car crash, told over and over as if how it could change in possible worlds, sequences of war photos in dizzying array, a woman floating horizontal in a dream, cheerleaders tumbling in slow motion across a vast expanse of cerulean sky, it surprises and delights at every turn. Take a moment when Conrad reads aloud an odd diary to his brother Jonah, which distills his essential longing to be known even as he is reluctant to take the first steps which would allow himself to know others.
It is as is this family is caught up in a collective fugue state of grief and an inability to connect with each other. An incredibly accurate portrayal of how depression isolates and seeps into the mind, even as one has a burning desire to be loved and known by the world. Yet even here, Louder Than Bombs neatly sidesteps away from dour melodrama by balancing pathos and levity. The opening sequence, a charming blend of wonder (a Tree of Life inspired shot of a newborn holding his father’s finger) and situational irony (Jonah’s less than fruitful attempt to forage food for his wife after giving birth leads him to an amusing chance encounter with an ex-girlfriend), or a transcendent moment after a party when Conrad walks home his high school crush, which could have been an episode of Freaks and Geeks, or the highlight of a John Hughes film. The key to the film’s approach comes right after Gene reveals a devastating secret to Conrad, whose response is “Why didn’t you tell me, am I that hard to talk to?” This outburst was met with laughs in the theatre – throughout the film Gene tries desperately hard to open up a dialogue with his son, only to have Conrad violently shut him down every time – but then the laughs dissipate as Trier allows the words to linger and sink in. Few people like to think of themselves as standoffish or difficult to talk to, and this universal feeling is contextualized in the midst of teenage angst and grief, so that even as the film draws attention to its inherent irony, it refuses to mock Conrad for it. Comedy and tragedy are joined together in a union which Trier refuses to divorce.
In many ways, Louder Than Bombs is an antithesis to the borderline pretentious films in the vein of American Beauty (I can only imagine how Sam Mendes would have steamrolled everything that made this film great for another flat, melodramatic, intellectually stunted family drama). Although there are moments in Trier’s work which veers dangerously close to those waters – a forced moment of conflict between Conrad and his teacher sacrifice an entire subplot for a meaningless, unnecessary bit of plot progression. While the plot may be less strong than the rest of the script, its brazen disregard for conventions is enough to divert one’s gaze from moments of weakness.
Beyond the subtle visual beauty of the film is how truthfully it deals in family dynamics, concepts of truth, and the ambiguities of emotional order/disorder. It abandons any semblance of a Brechtian approach, but without so much as dipping its toe in over sentimentality. Earning an incredibly affecting catharsis by the end, not by tying up all the loose ends, but by a willingness to look for hope and love lost within the ruins of this family, Louder Than Bombs occupies a unique space by not conforming to its own genre.
The Vancouver International Film Festival takes place from September 24 – October 9, 2015. Visit the official website for more information.