Louder Than Bombs February 4, 2017
Among the great family dramas, Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs (2016) is concerned with grief and how it travels through the intricacies of memory, perception, and sense of self. In the film, three men mourn the loss of Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert), a conflict photographer who tragically died in a car accident during her professional prime. Those mourning are her husband, Gene (a deeply sympathetic Gabriel Byrne), and their two sons, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and Conrad (Devin Druid).
It’s been a few years since her unexpected demise, but old wounds are reopened when an exhibition honoring her body of work opens to the general public. Having tried to move past the effects Isabelle’s death has had on them in the years following, the family is suddenly forced to come to terms with how their lives have been shaped in the face of such a major loss.
Patriarch Gene has begun to pursue a romance with a schoolteacher (Amy Ryan), but has since struggled to emotionally connect with Conrad, who was twelve when his mother passed and has grown accustomed to coping with his maternal loss by losing himself in vapid entertainment. Jonah, in college at the time of the tragedy, has become a husband and a father, but has recently started wondering what his life might have looked like if he still had a mother’s shoulder to cry on and if he listened to his intuition rather than the sounds of the decisions he thought were the right ones to make in his formative years.
The quandaries of these characters, so comprehensively and so hypersensitively co-written and directed by Trier, are given hefty emotional value that makes every obstacle all the more explosive. So thoroughly explored are they that we near instantaneously feel what they feel with overwhelming empathy — Trier, along with his actors, understand the people grieving on the screen and make them palpably damaged rather than passively so.
Trier’s unafraid of shifting perspectives with uncomfortable depth, pawing through every one of the vulnerabilities wreaking havoc on the well-beings of these individuals with the discipline of a builder hammering away seemingly unbreakable drywall. But the attribute that makes Louder Than Bombs so powerful is the way it utilizes the art of the flashback and the cinematic crafting of a memory. Flashbacks and memories don’t much give us background as much as they highlight how the film’s focal characters align themselves with the person they’ve lost, and how their impressions have metamorphosed over the years and how their respective notions have seeped into their everyday lives.
Most stirring is seeing how Isabelle’s death has affected Conrad, young enough at the time of her passing to still have not moved past the constraints of idolization that characterizes the majority of mother/son bonds. Gene and (for the most part) Jonah remember Isabelle as the woman she was — the fragile lionheart who adored her work and loved her family but could never quite adjust herself to the domesticity awaiting her back home — but Jonah’s recollections are distinctly rose-colored. And those recollections have turned him into an introspective being plagued by incessant longing. He's simply a boy who misses his mother, and watching him come to terms with himself and his family life is the most crushing thing about Louder Than Bombs. Druid gives an appropriately sensitive cum idiosyncratic performance that never dips into the trappings of one-dimensional angst.
And the film’s fragmented, pensive nature and lack of resolute conclusion only heightens its emotional significance — Trier recognizes that these characters will perhaps never stop putting Isabelle at the forefront of their every thought and doesn’t try to portray an end to that discontent. Because Louder Than Bombs is a slice of life that spotlessly defines what it’s like to mourn and what it’s like to recover from tragedy — and that’s an accomplishment worth celebrating. A-