Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Joachim Trier
Stars: Amy Ryan, David Strathairn, Devin Druid, Gabriel Byrne, Harry Ford,Isabelle Huppert, Jesse Eisenberg, Megan Ketch, Peter Mark Kendall, Rachel Brosnahan, Ruby Jerins,Russell Posner, Venus Schultheis
If there has been a single trend in all of the films I’ve seen so far at TIFF it is that of the one focusing on depressed white people. Apparently, a lot of these folks become so bored with their seemingly perfect(ly fine) existences, that many others would no doubt kill for a piece of, that they feel the need to create senseless drama for themselves to feel something, anything. It’s a sign of some type of narcissism as the three main male figures in this film are so self-involved in their quest to get past canonizing a woman who, despite being gone for several years, still dictates much of their daily lives. This isn’t to say the death of a loved one is an easy thing to cope with, but it is the actions and the inability to communicate between these three in the wake of their loss that places them each on different roads that see them looking to heal themselves in ways of aggression or impulse or hatred instead of trying to sit down and figure it out together. Director Joachim Trier, who has made two previous features (Reprise, Oslo, August 31st) that I haven’t seen has written an original screenplay with frequent collaborator Eskil Vogt and while it is easy to see where he is coming from with his examination of the effects we can each have on one another’s lives, even in the smallest senses, Louder Than Bombs still feels like something more appropriate for a forty-five minute short rather than a nearly two-hour slog that keeps piling on the bad, conceit-ridden choices that push these individuals farther and farther from where they need (or want) to be.
This period of mourning comes to something of a climax in the few days that Trier documents in his film. The catalyst is an upcoming exhibition celebrating war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) three years after her untimely death. This exhibition brings her eldest son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) back to the family house where he intends to go through his mothers unresolved work, a task his father, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), has still failed to accomplish. The third party to this depressed trio is younger brother Conrad (Devin Druid) who’s the epitome of the awkward kid in class, with hints of real substance behind his uninterested eyes. With Jonah having graduated from college and becoming a professor himself he has also had time to get married and have a child. The film opens with the birth of this child, but it’s clear shortly after running into his ex-girlfriend Erin (Rachel Brosnahan) that Jonah doesn’t know if he’s ready for what he’s just committed to. Gene, a high school teacher at Conrad’s school, is simply trying to move on from his wife while forming something resembling a relationship with fellow teacher, Hannah (Amy Ryan). Conrad likes a girl as well, Melanie (Ruby Jerins), but being the tender age of twelve he was when his mother died he’s been left him permanently scarred. He can’t stop contemplating what his mother experienced or what she might have been thinking in her final seconds. The fact of the matter though is that Isabelle wasn’t able to return to a normal, routine life after attempting to retire from photographing the atrocities of the world. She was depressed and both Gene and Jonah know she killed herself in a car wreck and that it was no accident. With the aforementioned exhibition coming up Isabelle’s esteemed colleague, Richard (David Strathairn), is writing a piece on her for The New York Times and is intent on including the true nature of her death. This means not only that the three men she left behind will have to face their demons, but that Conrad may come to see his mother in a different light than the one he remembers.
As you can tell, there is a lot of story going on here, but for some reason the film still feels too long. Trier is touching on interesting examinations, no doubt, but each of the characters feel so fragile and delicate that they are almost impossible to talk to and therefore draw up more conflicts than necessary. If these people talked to to or listened to one another for just a fraction of the time instead of being afraid that another’s words would crash their own train of thought then this movie would have been over in half the time. More than anything, I became annoyed with the characters quickly (granted, this is because of their emotional states) for despite not having remotely good relationships with one another it’s clear Gene’s children don’t even respect him. Now, I understand that Conrad probably put some kind of blame on his father for being the one that’s still around and that Jonah doesn’t agree with all of Gene’s decisions in terms of what he thinks about telling Conrad the truth about their mother, but there are never any opportunities to discuss these things with one another and if there are they are quick and easily dismissed by one of the hot-tempered, egotistical people in the room. Of course, this is probably what attracted superb actors like Eisenberg, Byrne, Huppert, Strathairn and Ryan to the project, the fact they would get to act and not just speak, but in the circumstances presented that’s all I wanted these people to do.
As far as the remainder of what the film has to offer, visually it is gorgeous and rather impressive for a small-budget indie. The car crash sequence in which Isabelle dies is staged with a certain precision and given the film shows many different iterations of this sequence we know it had to be shot multiple times and with each there is a sense of a really confident directorial hand that, for lack of a better term, makes this feel like a “real movie”. There are also little intermittent visual homages to the thoughts that run through Conrad’s head that are also documented nicely on his Microsoft Word. These little flourishes add some flavor to the otherwise bland proceedings. These moments of inspiration paired with the excellent performances across the board that allow the characters to feel more damaged than glib keep Louder Than Bombs afloat for if it was up to the script alone it seems the film would have sunk under it’s own weight.