Louder Than Bombs is, funnily enough, a very quiet film. Joachim Trier’s first English language film is fascinated with interiority, cinematic language and the responsibilities of parenthood from the very first frame: a silent, extreme close up of an infant’s hand clutching onto an adult’s finger. In Louder Than Bombs, Trier explores both parental connection and the idea that you can “change the look of a picture”, or change a person, by framing them differently. The person who is being examined and reframed in this way, ironically, is Isabelle Reed.
Isabelle (a mystifying Isabelle Huppert) has been dead for some time, but she and her death have left an indeliable and lasting mark on her family. Her husband and younger son, Gene (Gabriel Byrne) and Conrad (Devin Druid), live a strained existence – their relationship is one of alienation and frustration, Gene resorting to stalking his son in a desperate attempt to better understand him. Each of the characters are deeply flawed, with one key element of their personality that runs throughout the film. Her oldest son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg, solid as ever) whose hand appears in the first shot of the film, is a young professor who is confronted with the looming responsibility of parenthood and adulthood – and runs away from it.
Jonah uses his family visit as an excuse to escape his marriage and his child, and it becomes clear that before this, he had kept away from his family too (it becomes clear throughout the course of the film that Jonah really is his mother’s son). Conrad is strange, inward and somewhat antisocial, and Gene often gets in his own way in his attempts to get through to him – for starters, sleeping with his teacher. He makes a number of attempts to make a connection with his son (one even through Conrad’s past time of Elder Scrolls Online), most of them failures.
As Conrad often refuses to express himself, Trier instead uses the medium of cinema to articulate these feelings on Conrad’s behalf. In the first of many stunning representations of the character’s dreams and thoughts, the camera cuts from Conrad sitting in his classroom to a silent, slowed-down, dreamlike visual of his mother’s fatal car ‘accident’, how Conrad perceives it. As such, there is little in the way of verbal exposition in Louder Than Bombs.
Instead, Trier uses the potential of the cinematic medium and chooses instead to show us what we need to know about the characters he has created. In a subtle, yet involving, sequence, Trier shows the stalking sequence twice – once from Gene’s perspective, and once again from his son Conrad’s. The film is fixated on how powerful perspective can be, and this sequence adeptly illustrates that, without having to say anything. Conrad is an intense character, a boy who is dealing with the interiorized burden of both his mother’s death, and high school.
Druid brings an extremely volatile performance of what is a very inward character for much of the film’s runtime. He often attempts to remain opaque to his family members to hide his grief and confusion, so he appears resentful instead. Either way, he’s isolated, and the film begins to slowly move towards a point where he can articulate his suppressed emotion. Jesse Eisenberg’s Jonah at one point lampshades the stereotype with which Conrad shares some characteristics, asking “you’re not going to shoot up a school are you?” However it is with Jonah that Conrad has his most emotionally satisfying scenes, as the older brother attempts to comfort the younger during some high-school angst, and comes to realise the hidden artfulness and kindness of his sibling.
This is a film that chooses not to get loud at any point, instead gradually working through to an appropriate, yet satisfying conclusion. The performances match the narrative in their subtlety; Trier reducing the drama to instead convey what the characters can’t really express through techniques of the cinema. The main message of Louder Than Bombs comes through the strongest in a simple, subtle, yet involving scene set at the bleachers of Conrad’s high school sports field; the differences between Jonah and Conrad meshing as they attempt to make a connection.
Conrad thinks of something his mother always used to say, that ‘you can change a picture by framing it differently’. The two brothers discuss reputation and the importance of image to people, while talking about a crush that Conrad has. It’s this kind of simplicity combined with human emotion and purely cinematic storytelling that makes Louder Than Bombs so compelling, a film that constantly reframes characters and experiences in order to find the truth. And, as the title would suggest, the truth can speak volumes.
Dir: Joachim Trier
Scr: Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Gabriel Byrne, Isabelle Huppert, David Strathairn, Amy Ryan
Prd: Joshua Astrachan, Albert Berger, Alexandre Mallet-Guy, Thomas Robsahm, Marc Turtletaub, Ron Yerxa
DOP: Jakob Ihre
Music: Ola Fløttum
Country: Norway, France, Denmark
Run time: 109 minutes
Louder Than Bombs is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from the 15th August.