In the 35 years since “Ordinary People,” American cinema has told and retold stories of how a death in the family can reveal the dysfunction no one wanted to admit was there. “Louder Than Bombs” is just such a picture, studying how a widower and his two sons cope with learning the “circumstances” of the accident that killed his war-photographer wife, but it also manages to be the opposite of nearly every other film in the genre. Directed by Joachim Trier, who’s certainly gifted enough to have turned in a passive-viewing tearjerker, “Bombs” asks audiences to bring their brains, eschewing grand catharsis in favor of subtle psychological nuance, resulting in a film that runs both slender and cold on the surface, but rewards the arthouse audiences willing to give it a deeper reading.
Ever since Trier’s 2006 feature debut, “Reprise” (which landed him on Variety’s “10 Directors to Watch” list), Hollywood has been courting the Norwegian helmer with offers to come and make a film in the States. Switching to English is no trouble for Trier, who studied at the U.K.’s National Film & Television School, although there remains something far more alien about the cinematic syntax and language he uses to express his ideas.
Strangely, “Louder Than Bombs” manages to be glaringly obvious and admirably subtle in the same breath. Consider the title, which, apart from being a reference to the Smiths’ classic compilation album, feels like false advertising for such a quiet film, which is carried along by Ola Flottum’s low, trancelike score, yet is set so far away from the front lines where Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) is out trying to change the world. Your average picture may say a thousand words, but one of Reed’s, snapped in hot zones around the world and routinely landing on page one of the New York Times, is potentially powerful enough to have an almost nuclear effect.
Obviously, such a career can ruin a person, too, making it impossible to readjust to a society that’s not only too calm, but too far removed from the action to raise awareness, creating a domino effect where post-traumatic stress is concerned. Huppert barely appears in the film, haunting the edges like some sort of ghost, viewed slightly differently by everyone who remembered her — precisely the sort of formally intriguing challenge at which Trier excels, considering the way he shuffles chronology and perspective.
For Times colleague Richard Weissman (David Strathairn), Isabelle represents a fallen hero whose memory he seeks to honor by writing an in-depth column timed to coincide with a posthumous retrospective of her work — a story in which he intends to reveal that Isabelle’s death was almost certainly a suicide. For Isabelle’s husband, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), that deadline means having to re-examine his feelings toward his wife, as well as breaking the news to his sulky teenage son, Conrad (played by “Olive Kitteridge’s” promising Devin Druid). Meanwhile, older sibling Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg, once again typecast as the neurotic academic) seems more well adjusted at first, having just fathered an infant son, though he clearly has no shortage of issues to work through as well.
Frankly, the sight of these characters coping with Isabelle’s death isn’t nearly as rich or ambitious as another parallel theme that Trier and writing partner Eskil Vogt have opted to explore with the project: the issue of artistic ambition and how committing to a creative career (or abandoning it, as the case may be) shapes our lives and the relationships we maintain with loved ones. Isabelle put her work before her family, presumably using its political importance to justify the addiction she felt to the front lines. Gene, on the other hand, started his career as an actor, but put that aside at a certain point in order to focus on his wife and children, ultimately taking a non-glamorous job teaching at the local high school (where he’s struck up a covert affair with Conrad’s teacher, played by Amy Ryan).
Both of Trier’s previous features, “Reprise” and the suicide-centered “Oslo, August 31st,” concern themselves with tortured intellectuals who question their own existence, vacillating between whatever force drives them to create and the equally compelling impulse to self-destruct. Early on, the film identifies most strongly with Gene, but in time, it shifts to each of his sons before finally settling on Conrad. When we meet the kid, he seems awkward and angry, although in time, by replaying a series of events through the character’s perspective rather than his father’s, we see that he, too, has artistic talent, as a writer — a career for which Trier himself sometimes seems more suited. After all, behind the pic’s highly technical framing is a literary-minded helmer who appears to view screenwriting as an extension of the Nouveau Roman (or “new novel”) tradition, constantly bending the rules and toying with such elements as narrative continuity, structure and form in bold but always elegant ways.
In Trier’s hands, storytelling becomes a political act — not the sort that sees Isabelle’s reasons for repeatedly putting herself in harm’s way as being worthier than whatever domestic satisfaction she might take from staying home, but rather the kind that challenges the accepted modes of cinematic expression. One clue (falling on the more obvious side of things) presents itself when Conrad relays a lesson learned from his mother, who taught him how changing the framing of a photograph can completely change its meaning — which invites us to reflect on what Trier has cropped out of his own story, a contempo spin on James Agee’s “A Death in the Family,” complete with multiple re-enactments of the fatal crash and a dizzyingly modern found-footage montage.
As conceived, “Louder Than Bombs” remains a melodrama, but a curiously non-explosive one. The fuses appear to be burning on the inside here, as Trier focuses on the surviving Reeds’ almost tragic inability to connect. Conrad shuts down Gene’s every attempt at father-son communication, including a desperate workaround Gene attempts, going undercover in his son’s favorite role-playing game. At first, Johan has more encouraging words for Conrad, but then, in a horrifying conversation on the school bleachers, we realize just how scarred and cynical his older brother is. It’s as if all the trauma Isabelle took upon herself were passed on to her family, the battle scars she wears with pride internalized by those who spent every day afraid she might die in the field.
Those looking for a sexy in-the-trenches thriller would do better to track down “1,000 Times Good Night,” in which Michael Haneke’s other muse, Juliette Binoche, also plays a war photographer. Here, it hardly matters that Isabelle worked as a front-line shutterbug. That’s one of the few concrete details in a film that lacks much of the specificity that made Trier’s two previous films so fascinating — and the photos he attributes to her so arresting.