A fractured film about a fractured family, Louder Than Bombs takes a potentially tired premise and reshapes it before our eyes. It opens on a newborn’s tiny hand helplessly clinging to a father’s finger, and ends with a different father watching his two sons sleep. In between is a story of parents and children in which we're pulled by the currents and countercurrents of desperation, depression and love. The tale isn’t new, nor are the characters, but director Joachim Trier’s stylistic and narrative dexterity demands attention: He possesses that rare ability to deconstruct his material without denying us the simple beauties of a well-told story.
A good thing, too, because the bare bones of the premise aren’t inherently compelling. Gene Reed (Gabriel Byrne) is a high-school teacher whose famed war-photographer wife, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), took her own life in a car crash several years ago. His oldest son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) is a college professor who has just had his own baby with wife Amy (Megan Ketch), while Gene’s younger son Conrad (Devin Druid) — a moody, anxious teen fond of computer games and viral video clips — is still under the impression that mom’s death was an accident. When Gene is asked to help gather materials for an exhibit of Isabelle’s work and an accompanying New York Times article, Gene realizes he has to break the news to his son of how the boy’s mother really died. Meanwhile, Jonah comes down to stay with them, ostensibly to help out but also because he secretly yearns for a break from his own new parental responsibilities.
Though she’s been dead for three years, Isabelle remains a presence in the family’s life: She haunts Conrad’s daydreams and Gene and Jonah’s memories. We see flashbacks to her getting wounded by a bomb, to the scars on her body. Trier occasionally cuts to footage of interviews with her about her work. In one, she discusses her complicated feelings about going into the homes of families in war-ravaged countries to take pictures of their grief and devastation. “In so-called normal life,” she says, “nobody would go into the house of people who were grieving to photograph them.” But that’s what Trier is doing here. The setting might be a pleasant American suburb, but the film’s title suggests an emotional war zone. That Isabelle on some level probably brought the war back home with her merely strengthens the suggestion.
None of that, however, prepares us for the unusual complexity of Trier’s narrative pirouettes and emotional tangents. He rarely follows one clear story idea. Instead, he indulges the characters’ fixations, passions and even their visions. Conrad longs for a beautiful girl in his class; we see her reading, haltingly, a class assignment, then suddenly she seems to be reading something else — his own words, in his imagination. She recites what he's written about his mother’s death, and as she does so we see the crash that killed her. But it’s not Isabelle’s death, exactly; it’s Conrad imagining one version of it. And then he imagines another. And then we see Isabelle herself relating to Gene a memory of getting raped — while Gene watched. And then we realize that the rape is just a dream she’s had — and she asks Gene to interpret it. He tells her it’s symbolic of the weakness she sees in him. The son’s daydream has morphed seamlessly into the father’s memory of the mother’s nightmare. Where the hell are we?
It's hard to be sure. The film unhinges us from the present and lets us lose ourselves a little in the characters' reveries. The resulting fragmentation feels apropos. Trier's people guard their realities from each other. At one point, Gene recalls how, in order to bond with Conrad, he created an avatar and entered into the virtual-reality fantasy game that the boy was playing, only for his son to instantly slaughter him. But Gene himself, despite making half-hearted efforts to understand his son, seems always to be observing him from a distance, hiding across parking lots and behind walls. All this could get tiresome, but Trier has done the work of envisioning these characters in their individual, unique ways: We can sense that Jonah has inherited dad’s academic, analytical coolness, while Conrad has mom’s boldness, her creative madness.
There’s a funny Vertigo reference when Conrad, toying with his snooping father, collapses before a grave marked “Carlos Valdez” — a nod to the Hitchcock film’s mysterious, long-dead Carlotta Valdez. It seems like a throwaway gag until you realize that Louder Than Bombs, like Vertigo, is also ultimately about obsession and grief, about how, in the wake of trauma, people lose themselves in whirlpools of regret. Again, that’s nothing new, but in finding a narrative and visual style that embodies that obsessiveness, that lost-ness, Trier puts us inside his characters’ heads. What’s more, he does so without it ever feeling forced, or like some kind of authorial dictum. For all the film’s seemingly unusual narrative choices, you emerge from it thinking this story couldn’t properly be told any other way.