When is protecting someone actually putting them at risk? When is calm acceptance actually capitulation to the status quo and abandonment of what could – arguably should – be? When is giving someone space, essentially abandoning them – or dealing with one’s own issues on one’s own, actually creating them for someone else? What is privacy, and what is secrecy? How does one know, and then know what to do about it? Such are a few of the questions raised by “Louder Than Bombs”, wherein truth avoided and grief unprocessed threaten all.
Here we meet Gene, husband to Isabelle and father to teenaged Conrad and grown Jonah. It’s been two years since Isabelle’s passing, and instead of moving together and through it, the three have drifted apart into limbo. Limbo because Gene never told Conrad the full picture behind Isabelle’s death due to his age; limbo because adolescence is difficult in any case, and the grief is pushing Conrad into alienation that threatens to disconnect him completely; limbo because Jonah’s new baby is causing him to flee his loving wife. Limbo because the family was intact, but because of Isabelle’s absence even in life, it wasn’t quite, and now seems to have no chance to be… or perhaps has the chance to finally be?
Gene tries, but can’t reach his sons; Jonah tries, but by giving Conrad advice Conrad can’t accept; Conrad tries, but his attempts threaten to escalate his pain. We fear for all of them, and as we learn more about the dynamics prior to Isabelle’s death, the more we hope they can reach across the chasm and find each other again.
Echoing the anguish of “Ordinary People” and “Imaginary Heroes”,”Louder Than Bombs” well presents the dynamics of a family in silent turmoil, in which strain comes out sideways and the attempt to remain calm masks fear until a flashpoint forces every issue. Sadly, however, it sets the stage without exploring the outcomes of the characters’ efforts, be they constructive or otherwise. We see why they do something, and that they did something, but the film falters in not showing the direct results of those somethings and the new possibilities they create (whether through reconciliation or the conflagration that scorches earth and makes way for new growth). Given these particular characters and the life junctures at which the sons find themselves, that’s too much oversight. Thought-provoking open-endedness is one thing, loose-endedness quite another.
It’s interesting to note that as Isabelle’s career as a famed war photographer sets the parameters of all their lives to largely deleterious effect, while 2014 presented us with “The Salt of the Earth”, an exquisite documentary by the son of one such famed photographer who demonstrates how their family met and overcame this challenge. It’s an extraneous element to which “Louder Than Bombs” should in all fairness not be made subject, but since the latter implies a certain hopeless resignation, it’s interesting to factor in how such an intense challenge can in fact, be met, and then view this family’s struggles with that wider lens. “Louder Than Bombs” does leave gaps, and this knowledge fills them by drawing the distinction between circumstance and personal timbre.
“Louder Than Bombs” remains a worthwhile view, however, despite its tendency to ride off into the fog instead of the sunset; it’s a strong character study, and if you care to continue the conversation through the fog and back into the sunlight for another try at that horizon, queue up “Ordinary People” and/or “The Salt of the Earth”. Though different in content, they pick up the conversations begun by “Louder Than Bombs”, and carry the hope forward.
Story: Portrait of a father and two sons unable to bridge back to each other after the sudden death of the mother, an internationally renowned – and often absent – war photographer.
Themes: Death and Dying, Honesty, Loss, Love and Attachment, Time
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Jesse Eisenberg, Devin Druid, Isabelle Huppert, Amy Ryan, David Strathairn
Directed by: Joachim Trier
Running time: 109 minutes
Houston release date: April 22, 2016
Tickets: Check IMDb.com or your local listings
Screened April 19, 2016 via studio screener