Mark Reviews Movies

Louder Than Bombs


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Joachim Trier

Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Jesse Eisenberg, Devin Druid, Isabelle Huppert, Amy Ryan, Ruby Jerins, Megan Ketch, David Strathairn, Rachel Brosnahan, Russell Posner

MPAA Rating: R (for language, some sexual content, nudity and violent images)

Running Time: 1:49

Release Date: 4/8/16 (limited); 4/29/16 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 28, 2016

His mother taught him that a single photograph can tell multiple stories, depending on the way it's framed or cropped. The uniting picture in Louder Than Bombs is of a family, struggling with a sudden and tragic loss. Get in closer to that picture, and it's further united by the woman who was lost—a wife, a mother, a conflict photographer, someone suffering from depression and posttraumatic stress disorder, and much more that we don't know. We don't know those additional aspects of her because the surviving family didn't know them. Our perspective of another person is always cropped or framed by our own experiences with the person. It's further diluted by what the person is willing or unwilling to share.

The film begins as a jumble of pieces. There's the puzzle of the family, yes, but there are also the unique puzzles of the individuals within that family. Each member has secrets. Every one of them is reluctant to offer certain pieces of information. All of them are keenly aware that there is something they don't know about someone else who should, in theory, be as close to them as a another person can be. Each one is also aware that he, in turn, is hiding something from the rest of the family.

Co-writer/director Joachim Trier sees this tendency to hide oneself, not as a failure, but as an inescapable truth. The film is filled with moments of silence (hence the title), things glimpsed from the corner of a character's eye, memories that once were notable for unknown reasons becoming more lucid, and revelations that, once learned, are perhaps best kept as yet more secrets. The screenplay by Trier and Eskil Vogt isn't seeking objective answers, because it possesses the wisdom to know that all of this is subjective. What matters to one family member may not mean much or anything to another. What could cause pain to someone might as well remain unspoken. What the dead never spoke is forever lost—the possibilities of what could have been said remaining only as hints in the individual, incomplete memories of those who knew that person.

By the end of the film, the family members learn more about each other and themselves, but they—and we—still come up wanting. They'll never, for example, be able to answer the question of why the family's matriarch died in the way she did, but maybe they can learn something from that lack of understanding. Let it at least serve as a warning not to let another loved one remain a mystery, simply because of a fear of sharing or an unwillingness to listen.

The woman at the center of the question is Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), who died two years ago in a car accident. Her husband is Gene (Gabriel Byrne), a former actor who presumably gave up his career so that at least one of them was home to raise their children. Their two sons are Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and Conrad (Devin Druid).

Jonah has become a father. In the film's opening scenes, he is overcome with joy at the sight and just the thought of fatherhood—a smile sneaks on to his face while he wanders the hospital looking for food for his wife Amy (Megan Ketch). While on the search, he comes across Erin (Rachel Brosnahan), an old flame whose mother is in the hospital with cancer. There's an awkward misunderstanding between them, as she believes his wife is also sick. He does not correct her. When he sees his wife and daughter again, the smile does not return.

Conrad is a high school student. Gene teaches at his son's school and, we learn, is clandestinely dating Conrad's teacher Hannah (Amy Ryan). Father and still-homebound son have a precarious relationship, and there's the potential for it to become shakier after Isabelle's former colleague (David Strathairn) reveals to Gene that he is writing an article about her. It will include the truth about her death: It wasn't an accident. Gene and Jonah know this, but Conrad does not.

In the film's first instance of actively presenting the way a different perspective can change one's view of an event, Gene, grappling with the decision of whether or not to tell his younger son about Isabelle, follows Conrad after school. First, the scene plays out from Gene's point of view, with some of Conrad's activities—ending with him falling in front of a random gravestone in the cemetery where his mother is buried—seeming inexplicable. When the film changes over to the son's perspective, though, some of that behavior is answered by something that he notices out of the corner of his eye.

The screenplay shifts between the three men, who are all unreliable narrators and observers, in the present and the past (Olivier Bugge Coutté's editing gracefully transitions between the two times). Gene recalls two conversations with Isabelle about her career—separated by decades but existing side-by-side in his memory. In one moment, he wants her to continue her work, going to war-torn locations, or to quit only when she decides to do so, and in the next moment decades later, he wants her stop for him and their sons. In the memory card containing his mother's final photographs, Jonah discovers a mysterious photo of her in bed that she could not have taken, and whatever was happening there seems to repeating itself with him as he reconnects with Erin. Conrad has a crush on a girl (Ruby Jerins) at school, and he desperately wants her to know the real him.

Is that even possible? The life and death of Isabelle, which become clearer in some ways yet more enigmatic in others as the various fragments of memories unfold, seem to argue against such a proposition. A monologue about her state of confusion over being torn between two worlds, each one feeling foreign while there yet attractive while away, tells us much about her, but even then, the picture of her is incomplete.

It always will be. Louder Than Bombs exists within memories and uses the inadequacies of them to remind us that the inability to fully know a person is not only a component of grief but also a simple fact of life. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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