Sunday, April 10, 2016

Review: Louder Than Bombs

Image courtesy of The Orchard.
It's often when foreign filmmakers attempt their first feature in English or shot in the United States that they flounder. But in the case of Danish-born director Joachim Trier, whose first two features were set in Norway, it's an example of a filmmaker who has managed to flourish when making the jump across the pond.

I could be in the minority on this one. Trier's debut, "Reprise," was a critically acclaimed film, but I thought its overabundance of style occasionally overshadowed everything else. His follow up, "Oslo, August 31st," was an improvement, but it's his third feature - "Louder Than Bombs" - where the director has best managed to combine his stylistic flourishes with some very good performances and narrative choices.

The film, which jumps back and forth between the past and present, tells the story of a larger-than-life photographer (Isabelle Huppert), whose death that has not quite been ruled an accident has left a gaping hole in the lives of the three men in her lives - her husband (Gabriel Byrne) and two sons (Jesse Eisenberg as the eldest who has recently seen the birth of his first child and Devin Druid as the high school-aged younger son).

As the film opens, Eisenberg's Jonah, who leaves his wife and newborn child in the delivery room to go find a snack before getting sidetracked after running into an old flame, appears lost. When he's given the news that a former colleague (David Straitharn) of his mother's is going to write a piece that might reveal that her death may have been a suicide, it's as good an excuse as any for him to trek home and evade his own life for a while.

Once there, he finds his father, Gene (Byrne), floating through a mid-life crisis that involves sleeping with his youngest son's teacher (Amy Ryan). And his brother Conrad (Druid) is a loner who spends most of his time holed up in his room playing violent video games and, on occasion, dancing wildly to music from his computer.

One of the elements of the picture that I truly admired was how the script sets up Conrad to be another in a long line of gloomy suburban teenagers whom we expect to do something drastic - such as shoot up a school, a concern which Jonah even voices aloud to his brother - and then flips the cliche on its head when Trier and company go out of their way to treat Conrad's story with more thoughtfulness than you might expect.

The teenager is obsessed with a girl in his class who is out of his reach and the film builds us up to expect some sort of sequence of horrendous embarrassment and, instead, there's a nice moment shared between Conrad and the girl that is neither unrealistic or what you'd expect at all. And the film's highlight - a sequence where Trier gets to show off his filmmaking chops in the sort of manner that didn't quite work for me in "Reprise," but does so here - is when Jonah reads aloud a very well-written passage in his brother's journal that is scored to - of all things - Tangerine Dream's synthesized "Risky Business" score.

"Louder Than Bombs" poses many a conundrum for its central three protagonists, many of which are never quite resolved, adding to the proceedings a sense of realism. Although Huppert is as magnetic as ever here as the mysterious Isabelle, if the film falls a little short in any department it's that her character is only developed well enough for the film's three leads to react to her haunting their memories.

But, in my opinion, this film is a step up for the director and proof that he can put all of the stylistic trademarks you'd expect in his work to great use. The performances here are all very good - especially Druid, who goes beyond the typical teen angst you'd expect in a role such as the one he inhabits. Although the story of "Louder Than Bombs" is fairly straightforward, this is a complex movie in terms of the way it handles emotions pertaining to loss, relationships and responsibility. It's a gripping movie that stays with you long after the credits have rolled.

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