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The clear-eyed, empathetic gaze and supple craftsmanship that made Norwegian director Joachim Trier‘s first two features, Reprise and Oslo, August 31st, so compelling are again on display in his English-language debut, Louder Than Bombs, which also marks his upgrade to the main Cannes competition. But the sensibility is a less satisfying match with this drama about the lingering fallout of sudden, devastating loss on an American family. While it’s well acted and has strong moments on a scene-by-scene basis, the film lacks an emotional center, keeping the impact cool and diffuse where it should be affecting.
The themes of grief, regret and damaged lives are territory into which Trier and his regular co-writer Eskil Vogt enter with their customary intelligence. But the character observation is both less original and less consistent than usual, and though this is a contemporary drama, it often feels awkwardly like a period piece, at times recalling Ang Lee‘s superior The Ice Storm in tone.
Three years after the death of celebrated war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert), a major exhibition is being planned and her longtime colleague Richard (David Strathairn) is writing a New York Times feature pegged to the opening. We learn via a quick montage of award speeches, interviews and news reports that Isabelle did her best work by remaining in conflict zones after the tanks pulled out, in order to capture the consequences of war. It’s also revealed that she died not in the field but shortly after retiring, in a road accident just a few miles from her home in Nyack, New York.
Richard respectfully informs Isabelle’s widower, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), that he intends to reveal the full circumstances of her death in the profile; it’s believed that she drove deliberately into an oncoming truck. Gene asks for time to tell his withdrawn youngest son Conrad (Devin Druid), who was just 12 when his mother died and has been spared any knowledge of her apparent suicide. Conrad’s older brother Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) takes a break from his wife, his new baby and his college professor job to come sort through Isabelle’s studio for material from her final trip to Syria to be included in the show.
The narrative unfolds in non-linear style, and while editor Olivier Bugge Coutte brings fluidity to the back and forth between past and present, this adds to the film’s uncertainty about where exactly its heart should be.
Eisenberg’s Jonah is drawn as an off-putting character almost from the start. He slips away from the post-partum bedside of his wife Amy (Megan Ketch) to fetch the food he forgot to bring, and then reconnects with former flame Erin (Rachel Brosnahan) in the hospital corridor. Returning to his family home, he officiously tells Gene that his involvement in organizing Isabelle’s files is not required. When it later emerges that Jonah is no less messed-up than Conrad, it’s hard to summon much feeling for the supercilious neurotic, even if he does show tenderness in reaching out to his younger brother.
Conrad is sullen and often openly hostile with his father, a former film actor who now teaches at the same high school where his son goes. Gene has also been having a clandestine affair for the past year with Conrad’s English teacher (Amy Ryan).
It’s perhaps true to life that the resentment of both sons toward their father is explored only in vague terms, but this just leaves Gene moping around the edges of the story without much to do, beyond being the standard concerned, misunderstood parent, clueless about how to communicate with his fractured family. Byrne brings gravitas to the role, but with his inarticulate, mostly groundless feelings of guilt over Isabelle’s death, he’s a dull character.
Druid has more to chew on with Conrad, who spends most of his time hiding behind his headphones or computer screen. The type of awkward, angry teenager who’s pretty much invisible at high school, he pines for the pretty cheerleader (Ruby Jerins), a cliche that feels a tad obvious for Trier and Vogt.
The director indulges his taste for literary detours by having Jonah read Conrad’s journal, a mix of direct experience, online adventure, rant and rapture that allows for some interesting visual flourishes. But this interlude, along with an English-class reading exercise that becomes a romantic fantasy, sit rather heavily like chunks of refined prose lobbed in amidst the naturalistic drama.
The device works better with Isabelle’s dissection of her own surreal existence, a free-flowing reflection on the difficult adjustment of coming home from bomb blasts and death to a normal life in the leafy suburbs. While she’s deceased throughout most of the action, Huppert’s depressed character is the most vivid person onscreen, and her shaded performance is a nice study in contrasts — intense yet subdued, brittle but also soft and warm, removed though still accessible.
Trier has meaningful things to say about the ways in which tragic, incomprehensible loss can make us hyper-protective, jealous, even dishonest with our private memories and with the picture we present of the loved one who’s gone. And it’s to his credit that the director refuses to sentimentalize the story in any way. But the fumbling attempts of these three men to find a way forward unfold at a distance that makes the film far more contemplative than heartfelt.
Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Isabelle Huppert, Jesse Eisenberg, Devin Druid, David Strathairn, Amy Ryan, Rachel Brosnahan, Ruby Jerins, Megan Ketch
Production companies: Motlys, Memento Films Production, Nimbus Film, in association with Animal Kingdom, Beachside Films, Memento Films International, Memento Films Distribution, Bona Fide Productions
Director: Joachim Trier
Screenwriters: Eskil Vogt, Joachim Trier
Producers: Thomas Robsahm, Joshua Astrachan, Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa, Marc Turtletaub, Alexandre Mallet-Guy
Executive producers: Sigve Endresen, Frederick W. Green, Michael B. Clark, Emilie Georges, Nicholas Shumaker, Naima Abed, Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt
Director of photography: Jakob Ihre
Production designer: Molly Hughes
Costume designer: Emma Potter
Music: Ola Flottum
Editor: Olivier Bugge Coutte
Casting director: Laura Rosenthal
Sales: Memento Films International
No rating, 109 minutes.
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