If, by chance, you understand small doses of behavioral psychology, it should come as no surprise that a film titled Louder Than Bombs is one of the year’s most sonically silent emotional odysseys. Verbal declarations can easily be twisted, manipulated, and construed however the speaker or audience may desire, but it’s what’s held inside that echoes like a scream.
Silence is not golden – silence is an excuse. Silence is deceptive. That’s what filmmaker Joachim Trier warns in this bellowing indie, which acts as a post mortem on grief and healing. We, as logic-possessing humans, are constantly asked to choose (passion versus safety, perception versus truth), but sometimes our decisions hauntingly loom like a suffocating case of PTSD. This is a film about living versus surviving – and, more importantly, understanding the difference.
While Trier’s tone largely orbits around coping with grief, Louder Than Bombs begins with the miracle of life, when Jonah Reed (Jesse Eisenberg) introduces his newborn child to the world. But life soon gives way to death, as Jonah’s father, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), excitedly welcomes his son home, where brother Conrad (Devin Druid) also resides.
Since the passing of their war photographer mother/wife, the Reed men moved on as best they could. Jonah started a new life, while Conrad embraced a video-game-driven existence of solitude. Gene tries to connect with Conrad constantly, but his youngest son’s teenage instincts squash conversations in mere seconds. Over the next few days, the Reeds attempt to ready themselves for a final gallery event in honor of their dear Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) – a rocky period loaded with self-reflections that no one seems ready for.
From the film’s very first
seconds minutes, we’re ushered in by uncomfortable silence. Title cards roll through production companies without a peep, priming us for 119 minutes of minimal noise pollution. A few jazzy tunes play while Gene cooks tacos, or when the Reed brothers walk around a cheerleader practice set to some synthy flavor-of-the-week track, but Trier relies almost entirely on imagery.
Isabelle’s car crash is played as a daydream at points, but the slow-motion destruction isn’t aided by jarring metallic crunches à la 10 Cloverfield Lane. While tensions mount, silence ensures that the audience feels every bit of discomfort the Reeds do, which Trier manipulates to heighten dramatic moments. As documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act Of Killing/The Look Of Silence) has already realized, silence is tonally deafening when atmospherically employed – and it works aces here.
Trier’s influences are obvious and apparent. His name might as well be Joachim Von Trier given the way Louder Than Bombs weaves in and out of artistic expressionism, conceptualizing Malickian tendencies with more of a storytelling backbone. When characters start narrating inner monologues mid-scene, drowning out actual dialogue, Trier plays around with slow-mo, vantage points, and other camera tricks for an elevated, more out-of-body experience.
Most of these visions involve angelic flashbacks of Isabelle’s life, be her floating above recently exploded rubble, or flying through the air after going head-on with an 18 wheeler. These are dangerous, heartbreaking moments, but Trier achieves an operatic fluidity through his symphonic collaboration of visual and audible devices, transforming moving images into hypnotizing tastes of reality. Bite-sized delicacies that explode with flavor, not bleakness.
But, not everything plays into Trier’s hand. Jesse Eisenberg portrays a seemingly put-together family man whose instability slowly creeps out, and does so with a muted take on his signature witticisms. This works at face value, as he’s a protective brother and skeptical son. Yet, when a short romantic tryst with his ex-local-flame Erin (Rachel Brosnahan) highlights glaring insecurities, the cheating feels out of place, and wholly unnecessary. Infidelity never crops up as a personal battle for his character to that point, and it seems like a far jump for a drastic man – who has a wife and child waiting at home.
Then there’s the dynamic between Gene and Conrad, which accentuates helicopter parenting while stereotyping Conrad’s mute invisibility. Gabriel Byrne does his best to represent a struggling single dad who always seems to make the wrong decision, but stalking his son seems a bit much, and devalues ill-received sincerity. Devin Druid works well as Conrad though, and points are awarded for his reactions to Gene’s creepy methods of checking-in. Druid’s ability to remain emotionless outside, but frothing from within, makes us forget about Byrne lurking around corners, because conversing with his son seems all too hard.
Aside from the Reed males, you have Isabelle Huppert’s sorrowful take on adrenaline junkies caught between mundane existences, and the thrill of war. Notions of PTSD suggest Isabelle desperately loves her family, but she believes worldly differences can only be made behind a camera lens (her life is meaningless when not capturing atrocities on film).
This is a daily struggle for many of us who balance nightly passions with daytime monotony, and Trier exemplifies the dangerous side-effects that can stem from a life undecided. You blink, and time has flashed by. Questions of what you have to show for it arise, and in Isabelle’s mind, a fight between disregarded pictures and a family desperate to see her home builds with each returning flight. She assures her loved ones that everything is fine, but once again, that bastard Silence rears its ugly head.
Louder Than Bombs is about allowing open conversations and sharing your thoughts, because none of us are alone. Many people bottle the same painful emotions deep inside, pretending life’s continual gut-punches are just fine by them, but don’t be fooled. Indecision, uncertainty and constant soul-searching are a part of our crazy spiritual journey, and we do our best to make it all work. Don’t be the silent type. Embrace those around you, talk to those you love, and don’t wait for the silence to end – it’s OK to be anything but fine. Control your own destiny. That’s what Joachim Trier wants us to do, and Louder Than Bombs is his guide.
Joachim Trier's Louder Than Bombs couples a natural dissection of grief with our constant need to ensure that true emotions stay bottled unhealthily inside.