Not all ghost stories involve people haunted by the ghastly specters from beyond, sometimes a ghost story can be about the way our thoughts are haunted by those that have left us. That’s the case with Louder Than Bombs, the English language debut of Danish director Joachim Trier. This simultaneously modest and ambitious familial drama tells the story of a family dealing with the strains of losing its matriarch years ago. Louder Than Bombs is not quite for wider audiences, with a methodical pacing, numerous dream sequences, and almost permanent heartbreak of its characters. But for those with a mindset more geared to quieter arthouse fare, they’ll find a smart film that looks at the lasting impact of family bonds, and how events long past can still leave us shaken.
Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) was a combat photographer who worked around the world in various places of conflict. It wasn’t in a warzone that she lost her life, but a car accident not far from her home. Years later, and her widower Gene (Gabriel Byrne) is helping prepare a museum exhibition of his dead wife’s work. Her former colleague Richard (David Strathairn) is preparing a piece for the New York Times about her life and work, but he plans to reveal the truth of her death – it was a suicide. The sons of Gene and Isabelle are each going in their own ways. The elder Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) has just become a father with his wife and works as a professor. The younger Conrad (David Druid) is alienated and full of angst, only gaining release through playing video games. Jonah leaves his wife and child behind to spend a few days at the family home in hopes of getting material together for the exhibition of his mother’s photographs, but he only finds a family haunted by the ghosts of the past.
The story of Louder Than Bombs plays out in so many different ways, with flashbacks, fantasies, dreams, and inner-monologues all fleshing out the various characters and their perspective of events. Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt give their main trio of characters enormous depth for their actions on screen, though I’d say that they keep the younger Conrad at a distance which makes his angst-ridden teenage fairly annoying after a while (like any teenager, really). Never at any point are you left questioning why somebody performed any action.
As usual, Gabriel Byrne gives a strong performance as the patriarch of the Reed family, with a passive attitude towards confrontation. Even with saying little, he conveys great pain when trying in vain to bond with his surly teenage son. Sadly, the relationship between Byrne’s Gene and Amy Ryan’s Hannah isn’t given ample screen time, as the film focuses intently on the trio of men. It was certainly refreshing to see Jesse Eisenberg give a smart, assured performance following the debacle of Batman v Superman. He’s a man at precipice of complete adulthood, a newborn to his name, and riddled with apprehension about taking that next step forward. Even relegated to flashbacks and dreams, Isabelle Huppert radiates the mystery and compassion necessary for the audience to believe that her memory haunts her family.
For as much as Joachim Trier plays with timelines and realities, Louder Than Bombs is never unclear in its setting, a difficult trick indeed. It seems as if each character is given their own novel-like narration, which gives the varied flashbacks and dreams with a subjective perspective. Some events are played out more than once, giving us the events through the eyes of another character. Even in its quieter moments, Louder Than Bombs is nothing short of engaging.
Louder Than Bombs is an arthouse drama, one that may alienate those looking for an escalating drama rooted in convention. But this is a film about coping with loss, about how it can shape who we are. Joachim Trier’s English language debut is the work of a ponderous filmmaker, one willing to look beyond a traditional narrative to explore his themes. This is a well-acted, beautifully shot movie that frustrates at times and astounds at others. Not all ghost stories are scary, and Louder Than Bombs is a strikingly different kind of ghost story.