A distant relative of the mighty Lars Von Trier, Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier has undoubtedly earned a spot in the pantheon of the most interesting Scandinavian auteurs working today. Despite retaining the experimental vibes of Nordic cinema, he’s not a provocateur like the Danish director, but rather a pensive analyst of the human condition. His films mainly focus on memory and identity, which he believes are the thematic heart of cinema. It wasn’t easy to come back after the critical acclaim of his previous effort, Oslo, August 31st, but Trier does it brilliantly with his third feature Louder Than Bombs.
This intense family drama arrives in cinemas a year after premiering in competition at Cannes, and it’s the Norwegian filmmaker’s first English language movie. Written with regular writing partner Eskil Vogt, Louder Than Bombs is engrossing cinema exploring grief and family fracture in unconventional fashion, both on a structural and a stylistic level.
It’s been a few years since Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) passed away, leaving behind her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) and their two sons Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and Conrad (Devin Druid). A war photographer for The New York Times, who survived the daily risks of her dangerous job, Isabelle ironically died in a car accident in the US a few months after retiring. Or at least that’s what people believe, as her former journalistic partner Richard (David Strathairn) tells Gene he’s writing the truth about Isabelle’s struggle with depression for a commemorative article.
What could’ve turned out to be a sensationalised plot point is cleverly used by Trier and Vogt as the catalyst to shed light on this family’s malaise and how it had begun to crumble apart long before Isabelle’s death. The film reflects on the ineluctability of being the product of our upbringing and as the story progresses we see how Jonah channels his father’s mistakes and Conrad reveals his late mother’s free spirit and artistic vein.
Trier’s greatest strength is handling familiar topics and themes with a fresh approach that avoids melodrama and pretentiousness. His raw portrait of these people’s complex and conflicted emotions unravels a broken family’s need for personal and communal mending and a compelling journey where the written word, incredible performances, the nuanced pace of the inventive editing, and crisp cinematography create a vividly immersive cinematic experience.
Each of these characters has secrets and the quality of the ensemble is undeniable, with Byrne and Uppert being their usual outstanding selves and Eisenberg proving to have more range than the awkward, introverted, neurotic douche Hollywood seems to have pegged him as since The Social Network. Yet the heart of the film is the young Devin Druid who finds a perfect balance between raw vulnerability and impulsive youth.
Although he appears to be your typical outsider, barricaded behind a wall of teenage angst, mourning his mother by hiding within the virtual world of online gaming, Conrad is actually the only man in the family who’s aware of his emotions and is brave enough to face them.
Trier confirms he’s a gifted storyteller who has something to say and an intriguing way of saying it. Two underrated family dramas came to mind whilst watching Louder Than Bombs: one is Oscar winner Ang Lee’s beautiful and often forgotten The Ice Storm whilst the other one is Jason Reitman’s recent fiasco Men, Women and Children, which critics have dismissed too easily. Trier seems to share a similar will to study his characters and situations without intruding or judging and always leaving the audience with the final say about the questions posed by the story.
Words by Francesco Cerniglia