Befitting a title that evokes both the horrors of war and a Smiths compilation album, Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs endeavors to tap into two distinct varieties of suffering, with immediate deadly peril and corrosive slow-burn angst drawn into an unusual, often unsteady association with one another. Attempting a survey of the ways in which large-scale political events inspire and influence the micro-geography of personal depression, the Norwegian director’s American debut digs into the melancholy of privilege, as crimes perpetrated in faraway lands reverberate back to disrupt the comforts of home, from the scrub plains of Syria to Nyack’s carefully manicured lawns.
That connection is made through the conduit of Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert), an esteemed war photographer who, after finally forcing herself to retire from her dangerous but addictive profession, died tragically in a mysterious car accident that seems to have been ruled a suicide. Primarily set four years after this event, the film charts the slow recovery of the splintered family she’s left behind, setting the stage for a deliberately paced ensemble drama that’s both heavily redolent of cliché and somehow separate from it, steadying itself through an acute focus on the idiosyncrasies of human behavior and an expansive, patient empathy for its flawed characters.
Key to this balance is an enduring sense of ambiguity, stemming from the fact that, despite its status as the emotional and narrative center of the film, the exact nature of Isabelle’s death is never clarified. Possible scenarios are glimpsed via the daydreams of one character, and discussed obliquely by others, but precise explanations are avoided. This mystery is treated with trepidation as the family’s older son, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), fleeing from the pressures of fatherhood after his wife gives birth to their first child, arrives home to sift through Isabelle’s photo archives. Here he intrudes upon the brewing cold war between his troubled teenaged brother, Conrad (Devin Druid), and exhausted father, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), neither of whom has found a tenable method for living together without Isabelle, the emptiness of their too-large house creating ample space for bouts of lonesome brooding.
In telling this tale, Trier, aided by frequent collaborator Eskil Vogt, indulges in many of the hacky excesses of high-toned indie drama, while making enough small subversions of the format to leave things feeling slightly askew. Beyond a commitment to over-determined symbolic imagery, further indicators of a prosaic visual approach include the ever-present but always subtle shaky cam, fluttering ever so lightly to underline the characters’ tremulous emotional instability, and the familiar outlines of this sad suburban milieu, in which seemingly perfect lives are revealed as rotten at the core.
What makes the film more interesting than the usual and formulaically structured hyperlink drama is its commitment to mounting inquiries rather than offering pat solutions. Refusing to approach this tangle of misery as a puzzle to be solved, the film keeps searching further, digging up further complications and issues, opening up the story instead of closing it off.
Like Trier’s previous Oslo, August 31, Louder Than Bombs is a parable that takes depression seriously as a condition and a state of being, not merely a convenient impetus for dramatic catharsis. The characters here start out as stock figures, but deepen via the intensive exploration of their individual problems. They behave logically and illogically in quick succession, the rashness of self-destructive hatred bundled inextricably with their capacity and need for love, with the film attempting to explicate some small sense of deeper meaning out of their painful circumstances.
At one point, Isabelle describes the personal toll of heading off to war, even as an observer, and the heavy weight of being responsible for communicating on behalf of its victims. Along with that burden comes the sensation of dividing oneself into distinct domestic and professional selves, only to discover that each of those versions yearns for the comforts reserved for the other. As with a few other select instances of emotional revelation here, this speech takes on the form of a poetic off-screen narration delivered in two alternating voices, making it unclear if it’s being dramatically attributed to one or two characters. In this case, the words seemingly belong both to Reed and her colleague, Richard (David Straitharn), whose looming New York Times profile on Isabelle, which promises to reveal the supposed truth about her demise, provides the story with its primary impetus.
Richard’s status as Isabelle’s professional partner, and a later revelation of deeper connections between the two, helps develop the sensation of ghostly mirroring that expands as the film progresses. Rather than climactic fireworks, Gene’s eventual confrontation with his de facto double yields only the image of two broken men, damaged in entirely different ways by their relationship to this tragedy. Just as Isabelle’s proximity to unvarnished human agony in countless different locations both catalyzed and complicated her own feelings of dislocation and ennui, the characters here repeatedly find themselves matched up against others whose suffering simultaneously parallels and makes a mockery of their own. Incapable of drawing anything instructive from these meetings, they continue stumbling on alone, shaded from realization by the myopic insularity of their own clandestine suffering.
This links up with the film’s other major metaphorical conceit, again expressed via significant words from Isabelle, this time on how any image can be radically transformed by simply excising part of the picture and modifying its framing. This is a technique Trier himself tries out a few times, both in sly trick compositions and the larger story of a family recontexualized by the removal of one of its members. The confluence of these two motifs helps clarify the dual focus on concepts of emotional expansion and reduction, as well as its subtle subversion of a familiar wartime domestic narrative, confirming Louder Than Bombs as a film far more invested in penetrating dramatic analysis than might initially appear.