There is a lack of narrative focus and a confusion of purpose in Louder Than Bombs that undermines the characters and their impact.
Three years after the death of acclaimed war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) in a car accident, her shattered family are still struggling to put themselves back together. On the surface, husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) and academic careerist elder son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), whose wife has just given birth to their first child, are doing OK. However, adolescent misfit younger son Conrad (Devin Druid) is uncommunicative and solitary. At home he retreats to his bedroom to a world of computer war games, while at school he pines after a female classmate who is part of the in-crowd and barely aware of him. His discovery that his father is having an affair with his English teacher (Amy Ryan) adds to his angst.
A major exhibition of Isabelle’s photographs and newspaper retrospective of her career is a catalyst for change, bringing the family together under the same roof for the first time since her death. It soon becomes apparent that all is not well with Jonah, while previously undivulged revelations about the nature of Isabelle’s death push Conrad’s already strained relationship with Gene to breaking point.
There’s a good film here trying to bust out, if only the writers and director had trained their focus on Conrad. He is by far the most interesting character and the only one who has any sense of life about him, thanks largely to a standout performance by Devon Druid (even his name has star quality!). Unfortunately, Conrad shares approximately equal spotlight time with his less interesting family members. Gene, in particular, is a nothing of a character, placing Gabrielle Byrne in the impossible position of trying to breathe life into a stick figure. Jonah doesn’t fare much better, and Jesse Eisenberg seems uncharacteristically uncomfortable in the role – even his hair, swept forward over his forehead, jars.
The narrative of the family struggling with loss and grief is diluted rather than augmented by numerous extended flashbacks to Isabelle weighing the ethical pros and cons of war photography, and working through her conflict between pursuing her dangerous career abroad and spending time with her family. Nothing new is brought to the table here – these dilemmas confronting the war photographer were covered more convincingly and in more depth in the excellent and much more dramatically powerful A Thousand Times Goodnight (2014).
The screenplay is self-consciously “literary”, the writers manufacturing every possible opportunity to revert to expansive prose, rather than work through dialogue and image. There are voiceovers, Isabelle reads out one of her letters, and Jonah reads aloud an entire page of Conrad’s free-association creative writing, which he then declares “amazing.” It’s almost as if the screenwriters are having one of their characters affirm their literary brilliance.
This self-conscious artiness also surfaces in the direction. There are several dream sequences, for example, that while impressively managed and deploying “poetic” imagery, are not so extraordinary as to inspire much pondering about their meaning. Thus, they do not advance the narrative or provide insight into character as they should.
Stylistic flourish is just so much artistic puffery without a clear narrative purpose. It seems that writer/director Joachim Trier is divided between investigating the ethical and domestic travails of the war photographer and tracking the progress of a family coming to terms with loss and grief. In trying to cover too much territory, and evenly distributing his attention between his characters rather than focusing on the most compelling one, he has ended up with a film that is good-looking, but lacking in potency and emotional clout.
Movie website: http://louderthanbombs.film/
Australian release date: 11 Aug 2016 (@ Cinema Paradiso in Perth)
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