Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Louder Than Bombs (***1/2)

Directed by Joachim Trier


Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier has already shown that he's an unmatched talent in film right now. His third feature, Louder Than Bombs, is his first one in English. A plot description might suggest a limp novel adaptation, a maudlin tale of tragedy befallen by manipulated emotions - a much too common occurrence when great foreign directors try their hand at American stories. Instead, what we get is the kind of devastatingly effective familial melodrama that too many American filmmakers fail to make these days. It's stark, melancholy attitude is backed up by heartbreaking performances and a script that has a novelist's eye for details. Like his first two magnificent films, Reprise and Oslo, August 31st, the story's focus is minute, but its themes are expansive in a way that reflects the sadness of the human condition while maintaining that balance of honesty and romanticism that makes his films so wonderful. Transitioning from Norwegian to English (and from Oslo to New York), doesn't defang Trier; he still dwells in meditations of depression and loneliness, and Louder Than Bombs has a touching fondness for its characters' grief. In all three of his features, Trier explores sadness as an influential, sometimes even exhilarating experience. Creative people are undone by their inner turmoil, and Trier creates these universes where creation and tragedy work together in a cyclical enterprise that produces the beauty that humans depend on. That he's able to make these films while avoiding the cynical bleakness of his fellow Scandinavian filmmakers (like the infamous Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg) sets him apart. There is a value to humanity, but it doesn't mean we're all happy about it.

The film follows a father, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), living with his son, Conrad (Devin Druid). They're a few years removed from the death of Gene's wife and Conrad's mother, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert). Isabelle was a war photographer and journalist who risked her life dozens of times overseas only to die suddenly and tragically in the US, in a head-on collision with a semi-truck. Neither has overcome the loss. Their older son, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), is married to Amy (Megan Ketch) who has just given birth to their first child. On the surface anyway, Jonah is the only one who has risen from Isabelle's death with something like a normal life. Isabelle's close friend and fellow journalist, Richard (David Strathairn), is working on a tribute piece in the New York Times, a companion work to a gallery exhibition that wishes to honor Isabelle's legacy. The gallery would like to take a look at Isabelle's unseen photos, sitting around in a hastily organized room in Gene's home - a room he can't find the time or effort to enter. Jonah decides to come home and help Gene sort through Isabelle's unseen work, since Jonah considers the judgment of the gallery suspect, and he fears what will happen when his mother isn't there herself to curate the exhibition. In reality, Jonah and Gene are filtering through mutated memories. For Jonah, it's visions of a woman he morphed into a goddess. A mystified son, he buys into the mythologies of her genius, and he describes her as such to family and friends. For Gene, he's wandering through missed opportunities and regrets, not to mention resentment for the woman he loved, who wouldn't give up the danger of her profession, even to spend time with him and the children.

Meanwhile, Conrad's high school years unfold and he becomes more and more introverted. He hardly speaks to Gene, keeps his headphones glued to his ears, and spends most of his time at home playing online role-playing games and writing down his esoteric thoughts in word documents. It doesn't help that Gene is a teacher at his high school, constantly checking up on him, and even occasionally secretly following him after to school to see what he's up to. Gene doesn't realize just how transparent his detective work is. With the death of Isabelle, the relationship between father and youngest son has fractured, and when Gene tries desperately to try and talk to Conrad, he's met with stubborn force. He would literally rather toss a plastic bag over his head than talk intimately with his father. With Jonah's extended stay, Gene hopes that Conrad will become more exposed, open himself up to the family and help them heal together. A complication arises when Richard warns Gene about the tribute he plans to write. Richard wants to be honest, not romantic, and that means revealing the more sinister aspects of Isabelle's car accident, aspects that Gene has managed to keep secret from the fragile Conrad. Gene respects Richard's choice, and uses it as motivation to try and communicate with his son, but Jonah doesn't think Conrad is ready, their disagreement becoming a battle hopelessness versus hard-headedness. Jonah wants so desperately to keep Isabelle's story pure and heroic, while Gene seesaws between wanting to expose the truth and fearing the consequences of its exposure. Louder Than Bombs then becomes something much more, a film about the small lies we tell ourselves that morph into the bigger, heftier lies that come to define our lives and relationships. It becomes the story of the specters of the past, and the old tale of the children cursed to live out the sins of the parents.

The film's screenplay is written by Trier and his usual writing partner Eskil Vogt (director of last year's Blind), and its canvas becomes much more expansive than at first glance. What at one time seems like a domestic drama becomes a fascinating dissection of the fragility of human companionship and the inevitability of disappointment that one person brings to another. Both Gene and Jonah can pretend to be okay in the wake of Isabelle's absence, and yet neither seem to have quite a grip on their own heart. Jonah's blooming marriage to Amy is more tenuous than one might think, when his trip home reintroduces him to a college sweetheart, Erin (Rachel Brosnahan). Jonah creates reasons to stay home longer, and manipulates situations to ensure that he won't have to talk to Amy. Meanwhile, Gene's love life is complicated by his affair with Hannah (Amy Ryan), the woman who happens to be Conrad's English teacher. Gene may not realize that he's only using Hannah as a bridge to Conrad, but the relationship is sticky with unearned passion. The two teachers proceed in their doomed romance, but only one seems to be using it also to cope. Both men search in other women in hopes of finding who they love the most: Isabelle. It's Conrad whose heart is not yet poisoned by grief and pain. Despite his growing anti-social behavior, he still has room for an infatuation with Melanie (Ruby Jerins), a pretty cheerleader from his English class. Conrad's view of love is still innocent and naive, and he longs to simply tell Melanie his feelings. In his walks through the wilderness of adolescence, all he really desires is direct communication. He can't stomach the thought of communicating with Gene, and he can't handle the thought of approaching communication with Melanie. It's only Jonah that he feels comfortable speaking with, and while the older brother does a good job of pretending that he's wise, Jonah's casual lies to Amy and snippy conversations with Gene are transparent to Conrad, and prove that his mind is not at peace.

At the center of all of this is Isabelle. The casting of Huppert here is the film's greatest stroke of genius. Copious flashbacks bring her back into the fold, and her appearances are so alluring, at times idyllic, that it hards to tell what's an actual scene from the past, and what's a creation of Gene or Jonah or Conrad's mind. Her tyrannical hold over the psyche of these men hangs heavy over the events of the film; over Gene's hapless search for martyrdom, over Jonah's secret Oedipal torment and especially over Conrad's social ineptitude. The screenplay explores numerous Freudian concepts, including the aforementioned Oedipus Complex and the interpretation of dreams. These wealthy, intellectual men search deep for the roots of their problems, but also choose to stay blind to the issues right in front of them. They can't accept plain truth: people, even the best ones, are capable of emotional destruction. The innately human longing for passion - physical passion, intellectual passion, professional passion - leaves us unfinished, without contentedness. The character of Isabelle and her death puts this discomforting thought at the forefront not only for Jonah and Gene, but also for the audience. It's a spectacular display that Trier puts together here, and I'm not sure if it could have been accomplished without Huppert's striking but cold blue eyes, her beautiful but fragmented face. Huppert is playing a ghost in Louder Than Bombs, but she does it with such ferocity. Her strength and power came from reputation, a reputation that successfully hid someone who was just as afraid of their lives as her husband and oldest son are now. With Richard's story soon to be published, one hopes that a remedy can be found to protect Conrad from the same fate.

Eisenberg and Byrne are playing two versions of the same character here, and while both give markedly different performances, both show just how powerful self-deception can be. Byrne, the 66-year-old Irish actor, has always been a dependable Hollywood actor, whose best work this decade has been on television. Playing Gene, he brings a heavy gravitas to the film, playing a man both looking for pity but not outright asking for it. He wants desperately to communicate with Conrad, but ignores the most obvious pathway to do so. Meanwhile, Eisenberg plays Jonah in a familiar fashion. He's always succeeded as the charming but emotionally bankrupt little man, someone so turned off by his own success that he turns to hurting others so his reality better matches how he feels about himself. It's Devin Druid who's given the film's most important role. He's not the caliber of actor of his co-stars, though its not his fault that his performance is at times underwhelming considering the amount of responsibility that he's given. But in the moments when Druid does have a handle on the character, it's the film's best performance; a heartbreaking document of tortured youth and a startling display of the worst form of loneliness: high school loneliness. After Demolition, this is the weekend's second film about grief. Both films go for high emotion, and both deal with the concept of depression. But while VallĂ©e's film feels the need to make cake for it's star, Jake Gyllenhaal, Trier is more interested in broader concepts. Trier and Vogt have now crafted three tales dealing with mental instability and suicidal tendencies, and yet they're the ones that end up producing the less cynical film. Louder Than Bombs is an astonishing achievement of storytelling, a signature film from a director who is proving to inherit the reigns of previous cinematic masters.

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