Off the mark

"Louder Than Bombs" gets lost in its trajectory.

‘Louder Than Bombs’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Louder Than Bombs’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In 2006, Norwegian director Joachim Trier (a distant relative of Danish director Lars von Trier) burst onto the international film scene with a wonderful debut, Reprise, about two competitive friends with literary aspirations. He followed it up with Oslo, August 31st, a moving story about a struggling drug addict.
Trier has now made his first English-language film, Louder Than Bombs, the story of two brothers coping with the death of their mother, and their father who is struggling to help them and move on with his life. Often entertaining and accomplished, Louder Than Bombs bites off more than it can chew, weaving among the points of view of several characters and gradually losing its intensity.
The plot gets going when a reporter starts doing research for a profile of the mother, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), who was an acclaimed war photographer.
Everyone but the younger son, Conrad (Devin Druid), who was 12 when she died, knows that her death was a suicide and not a car accident.
But although Conrad doesn’t know the truth, he misses his mother terribly and suspects he has not been told everything. His grief over her loss complicates what would have been a rough adolescence in any case. He’s intense and artistic, like his mother; but, unlike her, he is also quite nerdy.
Although their mother was an adrenaline junkie who felt most alive when under fire, and their father, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), is an intellectual teacher who gave up an acting career to focus on his family, the boys live in the dullest of whitebread suburbs, where a kid like Conrad is an outcast. It’s no wonder that Isabelle found life there so stultifying and was so depressed in between her assignments overseas.
Conrad’s older brother, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg, best known for The Social Network), is married to a woman who adores him and has just had a baby, but Jonah is drawn back to the family home and starts spending time with his brother.
The story gives the perspectives of all the major characters, sometimes in voiceover. But it is Conrad and his relationship with Jonah that is the most compelling storyline. It brings to mind Noah Baumbach’s film The Squid and the Whale, which was also about two brothers coping with a volatile mother, and the older brother was also played by Eisenberg.
Louder Than Bombs is full of dream sequences, dreamy slowmotion effects and an alt-rock soundtrack that are the hallmarks of American indie cinema. The effects, including shots in which Isabelle’s photos come to life, are beautifully done but can’t make up for the movie’s lack of focus.
Huppert, who has never been at her best when acting in English, gives a rather glum performance in the extensive flashback scenes in which she appears. Her character is supposed to be a depressed woman contemplating suicide, and her performance is certainly convincing.
But the character isn’t as compelling as she needs to be in order to hold our interest in the entire story, which is about her widower and sons trying to figure out who she actually was and their coming to terms with how she left them.
I’ve worked with some reporters and photojournalists who were drawn to war zones, and most of them were characterized by a restless energy and an appetite for life that Isabelle lacks. I’ve enjoyed Huppert’s work in dozens of movies, and I think the problem here rests with the screenplay and direction, and not only her interpretation.
Many directors make clumsy films when they direct in a second language, but Louder Than Bombs has convincing, natural dialogue.
The movie has wonderful scenes and stretches, and although it doesn’t quite add up, I’m looking forward to Trier’s next film.