Review: Family secrets explode in the penetrating ‘Louder Than Bombs’
Here and not here — that would describe the war photographer played by the redoubtable Isabelle Huppert in “Louder than Bombs.” As the movie opens, she’s been dead three years, but her husband and sons still tangle daily with her memory, especially as they prepare for a retrospective exhibit of her work. And while she was alive she was often the absent parent, conflict zones somehow a more natural habitat than her suburban New York home.
The distances and silences that bind families, whether they’re trading secrets and lies from opposite sides of a troubled world or from separate rooms of a house shattered by grief, are the focus of director Joachim Trier’s first English-language film. An eloquent inquiry into grieving and the elusiveness of truth, it takes him and his screenwriting partner, Eskil Vogt, into more conventional turf than they explored in the Norwegian films “Reprise” and “Oslo, August 31st.”
But beneath the well-worn dysfunctional-family setup are bracing observations of the human coping mechanism. Startling expressions of longing and denial go off like detonations within the quietest of exchanges.
At the heart of the keenly observed drama is Huppert’s Isabelle Reed, a renowned photojournalist who died not in Iraq or Somalia but a few miles from her house in Nyack. She appears in flashback memories, unsettling fantasy sequences and a clip from “Charlie Rose.” Thanks to the artistry of Trier and editor Olivier Bugge Coutté, the nonlinear story’s movement between past and present is exceptionally fluid. Each shift enriches the tale, whether it’s a leap in time or from one character’s point of view to another’s.
With the exception of the openly conflicted Isabelle, no one in the family is quite what he seems. Amiable widower Gene (Gabriel Byrne) is having a clandestine affair with a fellow teacher (Amy Ryan). His withdrawn younger son, Conrad (impressive newcomer Devin Druid, who played the teenage version of the title character on “Louie”), appears dangerously unhinged but turns out to be the most grounded member of the family. For older son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), a successful academic with a seemingly stable home life, the opportunity to help Gene sort through Isabelle’s photos of Syria for the exhibit — a task that he quickly takes over — is a convenient excuse to flee his wife and newborn child.
With his own hidden agenda — kicked off by a jaw-dropping and beautifully played misassumption between him and a former girlfriend (Rachel Brosnahan) — Jonah is no help to Gene in trying to break through to the belligerently uncommunicative Conrad. Compounding the frustrated dad’s anxiety is his knowledge that a close colleague of Isabelle’s (David Strathairn) is writing a New York Times profile that, he gently warns Gene, will tell the “truth” about her death.
With its unforced incidents and subtle performances, Trier’s film makes potently clear that emotional truth is a matter of perspective. It’s in the way a photographer crops an image. It’s in the stories, whether about loved ones or war zones, that we need to believe or choose to ignore.
‘Louder Than Bombs’
MPAA rating: R, for language, some sexual content, nudity and violent images
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood
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