A dysfunctional family drama with a teenaged son named “Conrad” will inevitably invoke the 1980 film Ordinary People—and the novel upon which it’s based—and like that film, Louder Than Bombs is a family portrait snapped at a moment of profound grief, of a family derailed by loss. The English-language debut of Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier (Oslo, August 31st), Louder Than Bombs is a delicate melodrama examining the impact of a wife and mother’s death on her husband and two sons.
The woman in question is Isabelle Reed, played in flashback and dream sequence by Isabelle Huppert, who gives a commanding, fractious performance. Isabelle died several years past in a car accident, but before that, she was one of the world’s most renowned war photographers. As a retrospective of her work is being mounted, a devastating secret about Isabelle is on the brink of being exposed, and her family gathers to literally sort through the detritus of her career and metaphorically sort through the detritus her death left in their lives.
Gabriel Byrne stars as Gene, the widower left behind, his own artistic pursuits put aside to, presumably, raise the children he had with Isabelle while she circumnavigated the globe, documenting other people’s tragedy until the day she created her own. Byrne has often been underused—if not outright misused—by American cinema, but Trier, evincing no appreciable language barrier in his work with actors, brings out one of Byrne’s best performances as the bereaved Gene.
Jesse Eisenberg plays a very Jesse Eisenberg character, Jonah, a caustic, slightly bitter academic who is so terrified of his own new state of fatherhood that he can’t even tell an old lover that his wife has just given birth. But the real stand-out is Devin Druid as Gene and Isabelle’s youngest son, Conrad. Druid played Young Louie in the outstanding two-part “In the Woods” episode of Louie, and here he proves his performance was not a fluke—this is a young actor of tremendous talent.
Conrad is the kind of kid who, when his brother asks, “You’re not going to shoot up a school someday, are you?” feels like it could really go either way. He’s withdrawn, secretive, and spends a lot of time playing videogames, and Druid nails the combination of a sensitive child and an asshole teen. But he also shows signs of having inherited his mother’s genius, and a fantasy sequence exploring Conrad’s inner life is the most vibrant and exciting piece of filmmaking in an all-around stellar film.
Bombs is a sad film, obviously, and it doesn’t offer much in the way of relief from the grief it’s mining (in this way it differs from another melodramatic meditation on grief, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Demolition). Gene is desperate to connect with Conrad, but every attempt is rebuffed, including Gene’s effort to integrate into Conrad’s videogame life—on their first virtual meeting, Conrad kills his father.
Trier deploys a lot of tricks throughout the film, like flashbacks, dream sequences, nested flashbacks and dream sequences, and multiple perspectives on the same scene, that ought to make it feel cluttered and busy. But because it all works to show us the ways that grief fractures and separates, it ends up working out and adding to the narrative, not bogging it down. Louder Than Bombs isn’t going to appeal to everyone—if you don’t like Jesse Eisenberg playing Jesse Eisenberg characters, this just won’t be for you—but if you want to watch a film of particular sensitivity and thoughtfulness, with blazing good performances from Huppert and Druid, then it’s worth a shot.