Louder Than Bombs may be the first foray into (fully) English-language features for Norwegian director Joachim Trier and his regular screenwriting partner Eskil Vogt, but it absolutely feels like a logical progression of their impressive prior collaboration, the sombre Oslo, August 31st. As a more expansive feature (narrative-wise) than the 2011 film, which centered on one day in the life of a recovering drug addict, Louder Than Bombs nonetheless maintains the same sense of intimacy, stylistic unobtrusiveness and proclivity for gradual exposition via subtle visual cues and loaded conversations, as well as a carefully balanced moody register that never veers into misery porn despite the grim themes on offer.
A death three years prior is the catalyst for the film’s various story strands. Famed war photographer Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) died in a car crash while driving in Upstate New York late one night, the true nature of her death remaining something of a mystery to those most deeply affected by it, though they each seem set on their own reading of the event. For an upcoming New York Times profile ahead of an exhibition of her work, Isabelle’s former colleague and lover on the side Richard (David Strathairn) seems keen to put it out there that her death was motivated by suicidal inclinations. It’s an interpretation that Isabelle’s husband, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), shares, and he gives Richard his approval to include it in the piece.
The problem Gene faces is that he’s not brought up this version of events to his troubled teenage son, Conrad (Devin Druid), and wants to sit down and address the issue before the article goes to print; a difficult scenario when the boy, going through an awkward social outcast phase, will barely speak to him as is. Conrad himself has his own belief as to how his mother’s death occurred, something visualized — along with a few other interpretations — in a sequence of re-enactment set-pieces scattered throughout the narrative. The question that comes to the fore in the film is whether it really matters that they don’t know. Other people are, by and large, unknowable and unreadable, and that’s a hard fact of life to come to terms with; it can make us overly precious, jealous and even deceitful when it comes to our own memories of a loved one no longer with us, and the legacy they leave behind.
As to where eldest son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) stands, his perception of his mother’s death is closer to that of his father’s, though he is considerably against Conrad being subjected to the reveal. As the film opens, on a celestial shot of a new-born instinctively clasping the hand of a parent, Jonah is in a hospital where his wife (Megan Ketch) has just given birth to their first child. While exploring the building to fetch his wife food, he runs into his ex-girlfriend, Erin (Rachel Brosnahan, a beautiful scene-stealer), whose own mother is succumbing to cancer just a few corridors away; the universe gives just as it takes away.
Initially appearing as the more level-headed of the two sons, Jonah’s visit home to help with sorting through his mother’s files for the exhibition also acts as an escape from the prospect of fatherhood that terrifies him, so much so that he ends up sleeping with Erin to rekindle old feelings and intimacy free of the same kinds of responsibility. Even this fleeting, clandestine encounter cannot help but be informed by the past. There’s not just the fact that these two are old flames, but also that the hypocritical Jonah has recently erased evidence of his mother’s own adultery so as to preserve the saintly aura she left behind, all while covering his own cheating tracks and lying to his wife over the phone about why he hasn’t actually left his father’s place and driven back home that night.
Additionally, in one of the film’s welcome moments of levity, it’s revealed that the sex at Erin’s place may have been assisted by the “ghost” of her own lost loved one: “Wait, did we just have sex with your mother’s condoms?” That’s certainly one way to keep someone close to you; a humorous moment in a palpably empathetic, humanist work.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.