The poster for Louder than Bombs, the first English-language film from Norwegian director Joachim Trier, shows three teenage gymnasts tumbling through the air. The gymnasts feature only peripherally, but the poster proves to be emblematic of the film: elegant, well-honed and intriguing, but trying to keep too many themes in the air at the same time.
Director Joachim Trier
Gene Gabriel Byrne
Isabelle Isabelle Huppert
Jonah Jesse Eisenberg
Hannah Amy Ryan
Conrad Devin Druid
Richard David Straithairn
Erin Rachel Erin
Melanie Ruby Melanie
Amy Megan Ketch
Reprise (2006) and Oslo. August 31st (2011) have established Trier as a master of modern anomie, and he brings the same cool intelligence and careful observation to the new film, which starts with a remarkably beautiful shot of a baby’s hand clutching an adult finger. This introduces us to Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), the new father and elder son of Gene (Gabriel Byrne), a former actor turned high-school teacher who gave up his original career to be home for Jonah and younger brother Conrad (Devin Druid) while their mother Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) toured the world’s battle zones as a prize-winning war photographer. Now, three years after her death in a mysterious car accident and with a New York Times profile written by a former colleague (David Strathairn) due out, both boys are back home briefly as Gene struggles to find a way of telling Conrad the truth about his mother’s death that was kept from him at the time: it was suicide.
Shifting between now and then, with occasional visits to Isabelle’s various tours of duty (recreated with frightening precision) and the boys’ childhood memories, the film is already struggling with an excess of character arcs even before it starts to explore more philosophical issues such as the way we reorder memory to turn the messy accumulations of the past into a satisfying narrative.
Similar in tone is the role of photographs, referenced in the context which Isabelle attempts to give to her split-second images of death, repeatedly fussing about the way newspapers crop her pictures, as though the image’s framing somehow guaranteed its truth. The film is further complicated by the introduction of dream sequences and voiceovers for all the main characters, with yet another level introduced by having Conrad’s teenage diary read by the hesitant voice of a fellow high-school student, as though quoting from a first novel written some time in the future.
On the (very large) plus side, the performances are uniformly excellent, with a special nod to Druid, who looks remarkably like a younger Eisenberg, and nails the pain and aggression of teenage years with a wonderful combination of blankness and vulnerability. Also worth noting is a delightful cameo by Ruby Jerins as Conrad’s teenage crush, struggling with too much booze and a broken arm presumably sustained in the gymnastic display featured on the poster.
It should also be noted that, in contrast to many English-language debuts by established directors (including at least one in this year’s Cannes Competition), the dialogue is never stilted. The script – by Trier and regular collaborator Eskil Vogt – sounds entirely natural, with considerable freedom seemingly given to the actors. The result is to anchor the film in the kind of coded way in which real families communicate with one another, far from the epic ambitions that the complicated set-up might have engendered.
Beautifully shot by Jakob Ihre and with a score by Ola Fløttum that veers between discreet and propulsive as the mood demands, Louder than Bombs is emotionally intelligent and certainly holds the attention, particularly during the first 30 minutes, but ultimately fails to live up to its initial promise.