The way you frame a picture can totally change its meaning. So says one of the characters in Louder Than Bombs, and so says the entirety of the film itself. The ever-present subtext here is that we can never really know anything, since our perspective on people and events is always clouded by our personal opinions and prejudgements.
It’s a complex idea for a family drama to convey, but director Joachim Trier and his co-writer Eskil Vogt have carved it out in a really interesting way, making for a unique viewing experience where you’re never quite sure if you’re seeing the full picture. This is a particularly fitting approach for Louder Than Bombs, a film that deals with the death of a photographer.
The movie follows widower Gene Reed (played with a sullen softness by Gabriel Byrne) and his two sons, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg, reminding us that he can do so much more than the Zuckerberg/Luthor shtick) and Conrad (given an enigmatic air by impressive youngster Devin Druid), as they gather somewhat reluctantly because a fancy gallery wants to put on an exhibition about their long-deceased matriarch Isabelle.
Isabelle Huppert embodies this role, appearing in old footage, dream sequences, flashbacks and hallucinations. Isabelle’s ghost looms over the men she left behind, penetrating their darkest thoughts and – sometimes – a few nice ones too. The film slips in and out of different points of view and portrays a variety of different opinions on Isabelle. Was she a loving mum, or a work-obsessed war photographer who couldn’t wait to get away from her family?
Louder Than Bombs is a fractured family portrait, and an intriguing exploration of what grief does to different people. At the start, it seems that Eisenberg’s Jonah has progressed passed the pain and got his life together, while Conrad looks like a depressive who’s never moved on. But, as the film pushes on with all its unreal Isabelle scenes – and a string of nonlinear cutaways – the picture becomes more complicated as everyone’s true personalities are pulled into focus.
I don’t want to say too much more about what happens, as Louder Than Bombs packs a few surprises along the way to its conclusion. But I will say that Trier has pulled a great cast together here, all of whom offer nuanced and multifaceted performances. Druid, as the quiet and videogame-obsessed schoolboy Conrad, is particularly strong in this regard.
And then there are the dreams and the hallucinations – artfully shot and very meaningful, and sure to make you ponder the truth behind these characters even further. A couple of them could possibly have been cut (the film does feel a bit long towards the end, despite clocking in at under two hours), but for the most part these scenes add interesting new details to the wider image at play.
As a piece of filmmaking, Louder Than Bombs feels incredibly refreshing in its inventiveness. You’ll come out of it with plenty to discuss, and perhaps even a greater understanding of the human condition. How often can you say that about a movie nowadays?
Louder Than Bombs is in cinemas now.