Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, 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
Films about the different facets of grief and the extreme forms that it takes are pretty much, as the kids say, my jam. ORDINARY PEOPLE and KRAMER VS. KRAMER exposed me to familial melodrama I’d never been privy to, having grown up in the stereotypical portrait of a WASP-y family myself. That’s led me to explore these emotions cinematically. Unfortunately, there’s a universality to intense sorrow, but films can offer much in the way of counseling. Writer-Director Joachim Trier’s LOUDER THAN BOMBS does just that, portraying the after effects of grief in a unique way – long after the traditional grieving period.
In Trier’s English-language debut, ever-present anguish over the death of female figurehead/ acclaimed war photographer Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) takes different shapes in the lives of her fractured family unit: Her eldest son Jonah’s (Jesse Eisenberg) journey begins upon the birth of the daughter he’s named after his deceased mother. Youngest son Conrad (played pitch-perfectly by newcomer Devin Druid) has escaped into videogames, solitude, and his imagination, surreally constructing Oedipal scenarios starring his girl crush and dreaming about his mother’s possibly suicidal intentions. And in the years since her passing, hubby Gene (Gabriel Byrne) has become fiercely protective over her career legacy and the familial legacy she left behind for her kids. As the men work out their complex feelings surrounding this enigmatic woman, who’s relegated to a specter-like presence, cathartic healing from the heartache ensues.
Trier and co-screenwriter Eskil Vogt effectively and effortlessly capture the ever-changing mutations of the mourning process. Though Huppert appears to be given the short end of the stick, what with her brief screen time, she adeptly digs her teeth into some rather meaty material. In essence, she gets to play a dynamic three-dimensional character. To Jonah, she’s the Madonna on a pedestal, able to do no wrong. To Gene, she’s loving, albeit combative and depressive. To Conrad, she’s flawed, human. And throughout each of these three perspectives, the audience feels hers – one of palpable despair at the inability to balance family life with her demanding, dangerous career. Plus, Trier makes room for humor here – like when we see a clip from HELLO AGAIN, a metaphysical kooky 80’s romcom that also deals with a mother’s death, co-starring Byrne.
While this can feel about twenty minutes too long, Trier takes his time building the visual bandwith and tonality of the picture. There’s no huge crescendo or watershed moment simply because that’s not at all like real life. That doesn’t stop this film from attempting it, what with a few convoluted and predictable revelations about Isabelle – specifically the one about her and her colleague played by David Strathairn. But I’ll forgive its blemishes as the material in between congeals nicely. Story threads – like Jonah’s extramarital affair with his ex (played by Evan Rachel Wood doppelganger, Rachel Brosnahan, who’s performance is incomparable) – are left dangling in the breeze. We never get much closure of his complicated feelings about fatherhood, though he does give a few sage fatherly wisdoms to his own father and brother. For the sake of brevity, it winds up being just fine that the story isn’t elongated with Jonah’s woes.
Even though LOUDER THAN BOMBS has a gray, dour side (show me one “grief movie” that doesn’t), there’s a lot of hopefulness that resonates louder.
LOUDER THAN BOMBS is now playing.