“Louder than Bombs” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. R, 1:46, three and a half stars out of four.
What could be a more tired cliche for an indie drama than a family struggling to grieve the loss of a parent? And yet you’d think Joachim Trier’s “Louder than Bombs” was the first film to ever explore this emotional territory. Trier’s English-language debut (after the Norwegian “Reprise” and “Oslo August 31st,” both also excellent) is empathetic and graceful, and comes up with a bracingly different visual language to illustrate grief and memory.
The hole at the center of this story is Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a celebrated “conflict photographer” who spent a lifetime taking her camera into the most dangerous corners of the globe. (The examples we see of her photos, I assume the work of real combat photojournalists, are legitimately stunning.) She finally retires from the game to return stateside to her family — and dies in a car accident less than a year later.
“Louder than Bombs” takes place several years later, and the men she left behind are dealing (or, more accurately, not dealing) with her loss in different ways. Her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne, doing his best work in a long while) moves through life as a ghost, only just now start to breathe again with a relationship with his younger son’s teacher (Amy Ryan). Her older son Jordan (Jesse Eisenberg) seems like the well-adjusted one, a new father and young college professor. But he has a casual ease with lying to those around him — lying his way into an affair with an old girlfriend and then lying about it to his wife — that heralds deeper disturbances.
And then there’s younger son Conrad (Devin Druid), a taciturn, socially maladjusted teen who plays video games all night, stalks a girl at school and writes what seems like a manifesto on his home computer. But just as Jordan isn’t the good son he seems, Conrad isn’t the bad seed we initially take him for, and Druid’s deeply felt performance reveals complexities and maturity that we don’t immediately expect.
Who’s movie is this? Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt (who made the fine “Blind”) let each of the three men take a turn in the lead role, each revealing angles and shadings to the family that the other two don’t see. Pushing them all to a crisis point is the news that an old colleague of Isabelle’s plans to run an op-ed in the New York Times that claims what the family all knows and yet doesn’t know — that Isabelle took her own life.
But this isn’t a “what really happened” sort of story — at least not in the narrative sense. Instead, “Louder than Bombs” deepens the relationships between each of the three and their different connections to Isabelle and what emerges is a greater understanding for each other and themselves. “Blind” is actually more of a guidepost than Trier’s two films — both films explore the strange, messed-up paths that people sometimes need to take to heal themselves.
Trier presents this journey as a sort of collage of voiceovers, flashbacks, documentary footage, false memories, dream sequences, all flowing into each other. We expect the shots of characters staring off into space — we may not expect the shot of high school cheerleaders twirling and gyrating in midair. Or the silent close-up of Isabelle, just staring into our eyes a couple of beats longer than is comfortable.
There are sections that could be carved out and made into their own short films. But it’s the combined force of these pieces, knitted together, which makes this family whole again and creates the cumulative power of the film.