A film about life’s unpredictable and disorderly chaos that runs like clockwork: Call it a forensic tragedy. “Louder Than Bombs,” the English-language debut from Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier, is a note-perfect exploration of death and life and loss.
It is one of the increasingly rare character-driven films sympathetically exploring human behavior and psychology. Most family-themed American films offer reassuring, cliché-prone civilities about blood relations. This explores the legacies we hand each other with honest compassion rather than cheerful sentiment. It is a tough needle to thread, and Trier’s ambitious film does it masterfully.
Gabriel Byrne, Jesse Eisenberg and Devin Druid are unflinching as a father and two sons struggling with the aftershocks of the mother’s death years before in an auto collision. The matriarch’s passing doesn’t sever her profound links to her brood. Each still lives in her shadow, each has secrets and clandestine relationships of his own.
Byrne plays a high school teacher who finds himself in the restless life of an aging bachelor. Druid is his youngest, a withdrawn student, his attention pulled away from school as he barricades himself from the outside world with gory online videos of Dario Argento shockers and first-person war games. Eisenberg is a raw-nerved tenure track professor in his late 20s, a brand-new father less suited to comforting his infant than striking his foes like a cobra.
With a cornerstone of their lives gone, these survivors are becoming strangers. The father’s and brothers’ senses of self move in differing directions, each heart evolving into a foreign country. What they hold in common is a silent sense of rivalry for the woman they outlived.
The French star Isabelle Huppert is terrific in the role. She is a specter of mortality, gone but haunting recollections, voice-overs and fantasies. The character was an acclaimed Middle East war photojournalist with a trove of mysteries in her travel gear. The friction in the family rises when a museum is prepared to celebrate her conflict camerawork. A posthumous New York Times profile by a colleague overseas (David Strathairn) is readied for publication, which may send skeletons clattering out of the family’s closets. Byrne and Eisenberg debate how their black sheep Druid may react to the news that she was depressed when her car left its lane to aim directly at an oncoming truck.
The facts in play are painful, but Trier doesn’t descend into melodrama. There are multiple levels of meaning in the movie, giving it a novelistic feel. It’s not painted by numbers so that every viewer will understand every moment. It’s an experiment that keeps us always guessing. Even when the film is intellectually challenging, it feels poetic, touching us in a way that doesn’t need to be decoded to be understood.