It might be one of the most effective visual tricks I’ve ever seen in film: a father and son enter a basement room, and the father flicks a light switch, which bathes the room in a harsh red light. “Oops,” he says, turning that switch off and flicking another one, which gives the room a familiar fluorescent glow. The room is the former workspace of the man’s wife, a deceased war photographer. The red light, the trademark of a photographer’s darkroom, was a bold reminder of the family’s past and present, unable to stray from the unearthly glow of a lost loved one.
It’s a wonder that I liked Louder Than Bombs. Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s first film, Reprise, was Norway’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2006, but I was not so enamored by it. To me, it seemed like a heavy-handed attempt to recreate Trainspotting with far less compelling characters. But I saw potential in the director, and I wanted to see if he could impress me with his newest film (he’s made one film in between, Oslo, August 31st, which I haven’t seen). As it turns out, this is exactly the film I knew he had the potential to make, and I left the theater with that uplifted yet melancholy feeling that always accompanies the viewing of a great film.
This is Joachim Trier’s first English-language film, starring well-known American actors Jesse Eisenberg, Amy Ryan, and Gabriel Byrne, as well as an up-and-coming young American actor, Devin Druid. These characters spend the film reeling from the central event of the film, the death of wife and mother Isabelle Reed, played by French actress Isabelle Huppert. The film gains its title from a Smiths compilation album, which is not surprising given the director’s penchant for 80’s-inspired soundtracks, despite none of the band’s music actually appearing in the film.
Druid puts in an excellent performance as aloof and moody high schooler Conrad Reed, a sympathetic character who remains scarred by his mother’s death. Jesse Eisenberg plays a tougher version of his usual adroit academic character, Conrad’s sociologist older brother Jonah, who must deal with the apprehensions of being a new father. Gabriel Byrne (the father of the two boys), Amy Ryan (Conrad’s schoolteacher), and Isabelle Huppert (the deceased photographer) rotate around each other in a middle-aged love triangle where one of the three players just happens to be dead.
The film is admittedly overstuffed. It has too many ideas, but it succeeds more often than not. Louder Than Bombs tries to be many things, among them a teen comedy-drama, a film about struggling twenty-somethings, and a thoughtful adult drama. As unlikely as it may sound, it manages to effectively be all of these things, and more. The complex relationships between the characters are fascinating, and Louder Than Bombs avoids the dreaded self-seriousness that plagued Reprise. The film focuses on different characters in its revolving cast periodically, and just when you start to wonder what the other characters might be up to, the film deftly switches back to another character’s story. There are also several jumps back in time that help flesh out who Isabelle was and what effect she had on her family while she was alive.
The one weakness of this film that it occasionally presents jarring slow-motion tableaus that acted as dream sequences to reflect the character’s inner thoughts, which I thought did not mesh well with the realist drama that made up most of the film. These fantasy segments strongly reminded me of the introductory sections of several recent Lars von Trier films. Fitting then, that the directors are distant relatives.
Some critics have been disappointed by Louder Than Bombs, remarking that it “lacks an emotional center” or that it “doesn’t add up to much”. No, the film does not end on a definite note, and nothing is tied up in a neat little bow. In fact, the characters may be just as, if not more lost at the end of the film than they were at the beginning. But this didn’t weaken the film for me. Every character in this movie made me care about their stories from beginning to end. Our lives go on after the credits roll, so why shouldn’t theirs as well?