Louder Than Bombs opens with an image that might be mistaken for an outtake from The Tree of Life, a shot of new dad Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) staring at the hand of his newborn child gripping his own, by comparison, massive finger. It’s not entirely what it seems at first, however. As the camera shifts to Jonah’s face, it becomes clear he doesn’t know what to make of the moment, that any wonder he might be experiencing is getting drowned out by doubt and fear, even if he can’t bring himself to express those feelings. This, we’ll soon discover, is a family trait, one that’s already claimed one victim and might soon take others.
That Jonah’s child arrives as he, his father Gene (Gabriel Byrne), and teenage brother Conrad (Devin Druid) get a reminder of a still-fresh loss doesn’t help. Jonah’s mother Isabelle (played in flashback by Isabelle Huppert) earned renown as a war photographer, dropping into one hot spot after another before dying in a head-on collision while back home between gigs. In advance of a new exhibition of Jonah’s mother photography, they’re forced to sort through what’s left of her work and with the fact that Conrad, too young to understand at the time, should probably be told that the collision was no accident and that Isabelle took her own life.
There are obvious places for Louder Than Bombs to go from there, and even more obvious places for it to take other sub-plots, like Conrad’s increasingly anti-social behavior, Jonah’s renewed acquaintance with an old flame (Rachel Brosnahan), and Gene’s relationship with a fellow schoolteacher (Amy Ryan), his first since his wife’s death. To its credit, Louder Than Bombs goes to none of them. In some ways, it’s a film defined by what it’s not, taking all the elements of a malaise-and-misery-in-the-suburbs story and then refusing to assemble them in the expected ways.
This is the first American film from the Norwegian director Joachim Trier, whose made unsparing, compassionate looks at tortured lives something of a specialty. Reprise, his 2006 debut, used the youthful energy of the French New Wave to explore the diverging paths of two culture-mad young writers. His stunning second film, Oslo, August 31, followed the day in the life of an addict on leave from a rehab facility as he wandered through a city in which he now felt like a living ghost.
There’s more than a little of that film’s haunted quality in Louder Than Bombs. Visiting his brother and father as they get Isabelle’s items in order, Jonah avoids his wife’s calls (and worse). Gene has learned how to watch Conrad from a distance, but can’t make a conversation with him last beyond a sentence or two. Conrad can’t bring himself to speak at all to the girl on which he has a crush. While none of the film’s central characters are ever on the same self-destructive trajectory as the protagonist of Oslo, they’re also men who don’t quite fit into their lives anymore.
At times, the pieces of Louder Than Bombs don’t always seem to fit together all that well, either. Trier, who co-wrote the film with his longtime collaborator Eskil Vogt, doesn’t have much interest in the traditional rhythms of movie plotting or following developments through to their expected ends. The characters’ inevitable moments of bottoming out and subsequent revelations of how to live better lives never arrive. In their place, the film offers memorable lyrical passages that get beneath the surface of the characters. In one, Conrad considers the crash that killed his mother and all the possible causes that led to it, still unable to face the most likely scenario. In another, Gene talks to a reporter (David Strathairn) who worked alongside Isabelle, and the film lets his description of what it’s like to live a life divided between war zones and home bleed into Isabelle’s description of the same.
Like much of Louder Than Bombs, this doesn’t lead to a grand realization or a dramatic tipping point. Instead, Gene quietly comes to understand that there were aspects of his wife’s life he never understood and the film moves on. Trier’s less interested in telling his character’s story through a coherent narrative than a series of fractured moments and everyone involved rises to the occasion. Byrne’s typically excellent and Eisenberg delivers a low-key performance that’s almost enough to erase the memory of his Lex Luthor. But the real standout here is Druid, best known for playing the teenage Louis C.K. on Louie, who brings remarkable complexity to what could have been the part of a stereotypical brooding teen.
Anyone waiting for the plot to kick in will be frustrated, and there are stretches in which Louder Than Bombs‘ refusal to coalesce feels more like a bug than a feature. But the unusual approach ultimately makes the film more effective than one attempting to tell the same old story in the same old way. Tragedy’s never neat and the emotions around them are seldom predictable. There are no reasons films trying to capture them should be, either.