Norwegian director Joachim Trier's first two features, "Reprise" and "Oslo, August 31st" were eloquent, subdued dramas in which the details of the narratives mattered less than the way characters processed them. "Louder Than Bombs," Trier's first English language project and inaugural collaboration with name actors, technically marks his biggest project to date — but this ruminative ensemble piece about a New York family haunted by the legacy of its departed matriarch fits right in with Trier's other films, yielding an alternately wise, melancholic and good-humored look at people surrounded by support but nonetheless alienated by their incapacity to confront their problems.
In different hands, "Louder Than Bombs" might quickly devolve into a terribly maudlin and didactic story of overcoming grief, parenting, coming of age, and other troubling clichés. (Last year's "Men, Women and Children" was exactly that.) Instead, Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt deliver a smart, measured tale steeped in understatement and complimented by first-rate performances all around.
Though she appears in the fewest scenes, Isabelle Huppert provides the movie with its emotional foundation, playing acclaimed war photographer Isabelle Reed, who ironically dies in an upstate car accident after retiring from the frontlines before the movie begins. Three years on, her death weighs down on her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) and their youngest son Conrad (terrific newcomer Devin Druid), an angst-riddled teen kept in the dark by his dad about his mother's death. Conrad's older brother Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), a college student at the time of the tragedy, has moved on with his wife and newborn child. His dad, meanwhile, attempts to cope by engaging in a lazy relationship with his younger son's high school teacher (Amy Ryan), while Conrad simply unplugs from the world and plays videogames late into the night.
With all these pieces in play, "Louder Than Bombs" sometimes strains from juggling too many pieces at once, but Trier manages to thread them together nicely with a reasonable linking device — an exhibition of Isabelle's work that brings Jonah back home, instigating various conversations with his father about whether or not they should fill in angry Conrad about their mother's depressed state.
Time is ticking, with Isabelle's former photographer colleague (David Strathairn), planning a New York Times article that reveals her death to be a suicide. Rather than moving straight ahead, however, Trier shifts around, exploring the various members of this troubled household through their varied dreams and awkward exchanges.
Though he's less of a central character, the neurotic Jonah's circumstances open the movie to set the stage for the communication failures that follow: As he looks quizzically at his moments-old infant, he concludes to his wife, "We'll figure it out." That may as well be the whole cast's mantra, as Isabelle's family resists working through their issues and assume that somehow the pieces will settle themselves.
To that end, the strongest scenes revolve around the brothers: Jonah initially regards his younger sibling as "weird," but gets to know the intelligent person lurking behind the angry surface and eventually offers him expert advice. It's moments like these when Trier, ever the patient visual stylist, shows his true strengths as a filmmaker. Seated with his moody brother as the pair passively watch a cheerleader rehearsal, having acknowledged that Conrad's a helpless social pariah, Jonah asserts that "it gets better." Like the many moments of uncertainty in "Louder Than Bombs," the line comes across as much as wishful thinking for his present circumstances as advice in the moment.
There are times when "Louder Than Bombs" struggles from a few too many plot contrivances, some better resolved than others, including a time-wasting digression involving Conrad's infidelity and an overabundance of discussions about just how much Isabelle really wanted to leave her globe-trotting life behind to be with her family. Despite its low key feel, "Louder Than Bombs" is an overly busy project, but its held together by Trier's ability to maintain a cool, pensive atmosphere as well as the uniformly great cast. Eisenberg, buried under an unseemly combover, pushes himself to renewed depths, and newcomer Druid manages to convey his frustrations with more scowls and indifference than words. Byrne's also strong in the role of a failed parent and husband at odds with the world around him.
Only Huppert has been underutilized, but her character has greater symbolic resonance, and Trier uses her iconic face wisely — at later sequence, after a prolonged discussion of her troubled double-life, the director cuts to an extreme close-up of her face and holds the shot for close to half a minute, the ambiguity registering on her face speaking volumes about the speculative nature of the plot.
Such image-based storytelling regularly elevates "Louder Than Bombs" from the shadow of the mediocre, sentimental trappings around each corner. Another telling shot, seemingly erupting from Conrad's imagination, finds Huppert surrounding by the materials that caused her death in slo-mo. That focus on haunting visual poetry keeps the thematic drive at the forefront of the experience with mesmerizing results.
But Trier also uses this dense technique to enliven the story. There's much humor to be found in these characters' restless behavior and tendency to fall into less-than-ideal situations. One inventive moment finds Conrad unexpectedly accompanying a drunk classmate home after a house party and standing to the side as she urinates on a driveway; the stream that comes to rest at his feet is a welcome visual punchline to his unsteadiness as he ventures into unknown territory.
The same could be said for Trier himself as he delivers a movie riddled with formulaic possibilities that it heroically works around at each turn. "Louder Than Bombs" ends with the future of its central family uncertain, but leaves little doubt that Trier's career will continue to develop in promising directions.
"Louder Than Bombs" premieres this week at the Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.