Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Filmmaker Joachim Trier (OSLO, AUGUST 31ST) has made a flawless study on the aftereffects of grief with his latest feature, LOUDER THAN BOMBS. The drama about three men’s (Gabriel Byrne, Jesse Eisenberg and newcomer Devin Druid) continued struggles dealing with the death of their familial female figurehead, acclaimed war photographer Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), touches on a multitude of resonant, refined and restrained emotions. And for his first English-language feature, it’s quite a phenomenal feat Trier places just as much weight on what’s said, as well as what’s left unsaid.
Grief takes on a different form in Trier’s film – as opposed to other films in this genre like THE OTHER WOMAN, KRAMER VS. KRAMER and ORDINARY PEOPLE (which served as inspirations for BOMBS) – where he’s able to sidestep cliché and tap into a genuine sensibility.
“A lot of the dealing with grief in this one is more personal order. Not that it’s autobiographical in that sense, but in the sense of moving forward after loss. Loss comes in many versions during life. It’s a universal theme. It’s trying to be specific about it in this case. At the same time, I was very curious about a modern family dynamic. Coming from Scandinavia, my mom was a feminist in the 70’s. There’s great progress in terms of how gender and ambition is free and more mobile. It allowed me to explore a different type of father character, who’s not necessarily the authoritarian father we all see – that the sons have to rebel against. The father smothering them with love – the more classical mother sense than the father. I was curious about that. Gabriel Byrne is so perfect for that. Avoiding cliché is the name of the game.”
Since Byrne plays a former actor, Trier was able to use clips from one of Byrne’s first films, HELLO AGAIN.
“It was a leap of faith. At the time, we [Trier and Eskil Vogt] had wrote in the script, ‘an early, cheesy clip from that actor in the 80’s that would play the part of Gene.’ When we got Gabriel, it was this Hallelujah moment where we found that clip. That was his first American part. He hadn’t seen it since then. A scene that’s cut out of [BOMBS], was him looking at it, snooping on his sons computer. I made Gabriel watch the clip and he basically was tomato red. He was also melancholic. It’s not only a cheap joke, but it’s the melancholy of time passing – the idea of time moving and changing.”
Druid’s character, Conrad, escapes some of his mourning by exploring the world of Bethesda Softworks’ The Elder Scrolls Online.
“The Elder Scrolls people gave us the rights and allowed us a special link so that someone on our team could play and get the material we needed. In that world, it was almost like clearing the street to shoot a car chase. It was like, ‘This part of the game is for LOUDER THAN BOMBS.’ We had our players in there. I wanna be specific when I write a fifteen-year-old kid, so I did a lot of research. I didn’t want, because I’m not fifteen, a fifteen-year-old to see the film and say, ‘Oh. That’s not believable.’ It needed to be a nuanced as anything.”
As a co-writer on BOMBS, Trier doesn’t really identify with one character in particular.
“I care about all of them. You go through different stages in the writing. You try to ask the subjective question of point-of-view of each of them as you write, to make them as truthful as possible. But they all represent an aspect of me and my co-writer, I’m sure. Ultimately they take on the life of the actors. My role then is different – more guiding.”
There was also lots of surprise with how the actors fleshed out their roles – with all of them bringing something undiscovered to the table.
“Devin had great authority on being a fifteen-year-old in a much more nuanced way. The way he fought for the character to be complex and not simple. Jesse was very funny and almost made the character cynical, but still with a touch of heart that was more nuanced than I expected. Isabelle Huppert – you don’t know what you’re going to get, but you know it will always be remarkable. Gabriel came in and became the natural father of the family on set. He was very supportive of everyone. He felt like a great collaborator. Amy Ryan, David Strathairn, Rachel Brosnahan, I felt honored that I got that level of people to come in and do smaller parts.”
A handful of surreal, beautifully rendered moments where we go deep into Conrad’s mind aid in exploring his character’s rumination of loss.
“It tries to portray the minds of the characters as much as the events around them – their interior. Dreams and memories matter. I like to try to find ways in stories to bring you into their minds. I try to be intuitive. If you have a crazy idea, it might be worth listening to – it’s there for a reason. Like the idea of dreaming about the girl he’s infatuated with, being dead, waking up and his mother, who is dead. That erotic connection between present infatuation and a lost mother is an Oedipal, complicated thought that, had it been said more explicitly, would have become more banal, but since it’s in that structure, it works. It’s more associative than explicit.”
BOMBS’ biggest set-piece, one that the characters replay in their minds, is the car crash. This scene required a lot of visual effects.
“Doing this film, I didn’t want it to apply to ‘it’s a grief film so it’s people in a house crying.’ I wanted it to be rich in images and saturation. I’ve done a lot of VFX work, in the past on commercials. I thought to do the imagination of a gamer kid with that sci-fi, supernatural approach to reality, imagining the death of his mom in a car crash would be an interesting way of giving the audience insight into the mystery of it and into his mind and interpretation of things. He beautifies it. It’s his own way of accepting.”
Trier also rightly posits that kids pick up on familial strife more than the parents ever want to acknowledge.
“Isn’t this the truth? What freaks young parents out continuously is that the kids notice everything – whether it’s articulated or on an intuitive level. That’s the beauty and terror of family life. You can’t hide from each other. It’s tough but worth telling stories about because we’re all going through it.”
LOUDER THAN BOMBS opens in select cities on April 8 (at Laemmle Royal in West LA and Sundance Sunset in West Hollywood) and wider release on April 15 (in Pasadena, Encino and Orange County).