Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Isabelle Huppert, Jesse Eisenberg, David Strathairn, Amy Ryan, Rachel Brosnahan, Devin Druid
Director: Joachim Trier
Writers: Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt
The film opens on a shot of a newborn infant clutching his father’s finger. As the child’s life begins, so does he intuitively form a powerful bond with the parent whom he recognises as his custodian. It is a bond built upon love, faith and nurture that endures for the duration of their lifetimes. The opening shot reflects the fragility of this bond as well as its instinctive nature. There is a beauty to this image but there is also a certain pathos as its portrayal of life at its inception ends up serving as a contrast to the remainder of the film. Louder Than Bombs tells the story of what happens when the bond that is formed at this very moment is ultimately and inevitably severed by death. When a director understands the importance of an opening shot and how powerful it can be, it is a strong sign that the film you’re watching is in capable hands.
It has been three years since Gene Reed (Gabriel Byrne) tragically lost his wife and now there is going to be an exhibition in her memory. Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) was a renowned photographer famed for capturing images of war zones who committed suicide, leaving behind her husband and two sons. Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) is the elder son who has since graduated from college and is now married with a newborn baby. He returns home to assist the upcoming exhibition by sorting through his mother’s things while also taking the chance to reconnect with Erin (Rachel Brosnahan), an old flame. The younger son Conrad (Devin Druid) is still in high school and still living with his father. He has become increasingly withdrawn since his mother’s death and remains in the dark about the fact of her suicide. He spends his days shut in his room where he can avoid his father and lose himself in his video games. So affected are they by Isabelle’s death that the three of them are unable to connect with one another or reconcile their feelings about the woman whom they all remember in different ways.
Despite the impression that the title might form in the viewer’s mind, Louder Than Bombs is in fact a strikingly quiet film. The suburban setting is thousands of miles away from the destructive and chaotic areas of conflict that we only ever see in Isabelle’s photographs. What makes this film stand out is how much it is able to convey with its stillness. By far the most striking image in this film is when the camera focuses squarely on Isabelle’s face for what seems like an eternity as she subtly yet vividly conveys an entire spectrum of emotion. Whereas a typical image is said to be worth a thousand words, this is an image that speaks entire volumes. Isabelle is not featured prominently in this film and yet she makes her presence felt, haunting the memories of those who remember her. The absence she leaves following her departure is almost deafening in its silence. This family has been fractured by her death and nothing is as it once was. The way this film jumps between chronology and perspective is indicative of this as each family member reflects upon their own unique remembrances of her.
The up and comer Devin Druid gives the film’s standout performance as an introverted teenager unable to fully comprehend the loss of his mother. He deftly conveys this character’s anxiety and confusion in his attempt to make sense of it all. He isolates himself from his father without quite understanding why, he plays video games for hours on end in order to escape his own thoughts and he has no clue how to vent his frustration and anger. Huppert also shines every moment she is on screen as a woman who finds herself torn between her life as a photographer, which provides her with stimulation and fulfilment, and her life with her family, which provides her with love and comfort. When she is home she misses her work but when she’s away she misses her family. Through this character she expresses an agonising inner-conflict that perhaps could never have been reconciled. Neither the audience nor the characters are ever given a clear answer over why she took her own life. All we have to go on are the memories of her.
As well as an engaging and emotional story, Louder Than Bombs is an interesting exercise in the power of perspective. Conrad reflects on a lesson he learned from his mother about how changing the frame of a photograph can completely change its meaning. Trier teaches this same lesson by allowing certain scenarios to play out from different points of view. He directs this film skilfully and purposefully as he reflects how our perspectives can affect our perceptions, our relationships and our feelings in revealing ways. In order for their reconciliation to happen each of these characters has to have their eyes opened in a profound way and learn to see things differently from how they appear. Louder Than Bombs is a film that does not seem great or profound upon its first impression. It requires patience, thought and concentration to really sink in but is well worth it. Upon reflection I discovered it to be an intelligent and thoughtful drama about the effects of loss.