Three years after the car accident that killed her, retired war photographer Isabelle Reed’s (Huppert) absence still haunts the men she left behind. High school teacher husband and failed actor Gene (Byrne) is struggling with single fatherhood, desperately trying, and failing, to connect with their angry, alienated teenage son Conrad (Druid) while hiding the fact that he’s secretly dating Conrad’s teacher (Ryan). Their eldest son, the neurotic Jonah (Eisenberg), meanwhile is quietly freaking out about becoming a new father, seeking escape by rekindling an old flame while his wife and baby wait at home.
On the virtual eve of a posthumous retrospective of Isabelle’s work, the fourth man in her life, lover and fellow war photographer Richard (Strathairn) drops a bombshell – in an article paying tribute to her life and career, he’s planning to reveal that the crash that killed Isabelle was no accident, she took her own life while suffering from a combination of PTSD and depression, a fact that Gene and Jonah conspired to keep from the younger Conrad. As the Reed men gather for the exhibition and to honour Isabelle, they find themselves re-evaluating their memories and perception of the woman they each loved but never really knew as they find a shared catharsis, rebuilding their fractured relationships with each other.
While a picture may paint a thousand words, it’s the eloquent silences of Norwegian director Trier’s English-language feature debut that speak volumes and are indeed Louder Than Bombs. As with Trier’s previous film Oslo, August 31st the flip side of the creative impulsive is destructive – adrenaline junkie Isabelle sacrificing home, family and relationships in pursuit of an art powerful enough to change the world.
But this is only an excuse. Isabelle is bored, stifled by the conventionality of marriage, needs the escape that war gives her and, by default, she’s as absent from the film as she is from her families’ lives, we glimpse her, Rashomon-like, only through the memories of the men she left behind: scatty but loving mom to Conrad, cool, unconventional artist who visits Jonah at college, the absent partner Gene drops off and picks up at empty airports. She exists now on the edges of their lives, in the fringes. Jonah has a family of his own even if he is temporarily avoiding his responsibilities by hiding out in Gene’s basement to catalogue Isabelle’s photos. Gene has moved on, begun a new relationship, and is striving to connect with Conrad, even if that means cyberstalking him and creating a fantasy avatar to befriend his son through a World of Warcraft-style online game. Conrad is a normal, if geeky, teenager, a talented nerd doomed to unrequited love for an unobtainable cheerleader. Isabelle’s gone from being a fresh, raw, ragged tear in their lives to a dull ache they can live with.
While Jesse Eisenberg as ever just plays Jesse Eisenberg, he’s muted here, more sympathetic, his realisation while looking through his mother’s photos that she was having an affair, a devastating punch to the gut. Byrne’s Gene meanwhile is a portrait of impotent decency, a father desperate to connect with his son and terrified of alienating him further. But it’s Druid’s Conrad who feels the most real despite, or perhaps because of, his cliched passion, his relationship with Byrne crackling with sullen antagonism and frustration
Low-key, wryly funny and sensitive, Louder Than Bombs is a powerful portrait of the aftermath of devastating grief, of the day you wake up and the loss no longer aches the way it did.