“Louder Than Bombs” is a sort of ghost story, though not of the white-sheet-bump-in-the-night variety.
The first American film from Norwegian auteur Joachim Trier is a quietly devastating study of a father and two sons cut adrift by the death — the suicide, it turns out — of their wife and mother, and how they are haunted by memories, doubts and uncertainties.
Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert, seen in flashbacks and dream sequences) was a photojournalist who specialized in war coverage, not so much the fighting as the human toll. Two years have passed since her late-night death in a car crash, just miles from her suburban New York home.
Her husband, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), a former actor turned teacher, has tried to keep his boys on an even keel. The oldest, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) is a sociologist with his first university teaching appointment, a wife and a new baby girl. The younger, Conrad (Devin Druid), is a brooding, uncommunicative loner who refuses to give his concerned father the time of day. It probably doesn’t help that Gene is on the faculty of Conrad’s high school, always lurking just around the corner.
A gallery retrospective of Isabelle’s work is being planned by a journalist colleague (David Strathairn), whose essay about his deceased friend specifically names her as a suicide. While Jonah has long been aware of this, Conrad is still under the impression that her death was a random accident. Gene must find a way to tell him the truth.
There’s no shortage of pain in the screenplay co-written by Trier and Eskil Vogt, but also a great deal of love. This achingly humanitarian work lacks a villain. All three men and the late Isabelle have their own flaws and frustrating facets.
Gene is having an affair with a fellow teacher (the ever-sublime Amy Ryan), a relationship he has kept secret from Conrad. Jonah, back home to organize his mother’s photographs, is freaked out by fatherhood and wastes little time hooking up with his old high school flame played by Rachel Brosnahan.
Conrad, meanwhile, is borderline creepy. Even his big brother, finding one too many videos of animal carcasses decomposing in time-lapse on Conrad’s computer, seeks assurance that the kid isn’t going to become a school shooter. Conrad also indulges in a rich fantasy life, including a hopeless crush on a cute classmate (Ruby Jerins) who is way out of his league. But beneath the weirdness and attitude, he’s a decent sort.
“You know, if I had a girl I would never lie to her,” he tells his philandering brother.
“Yeah, well, good luck with that,” is Jonah’s reply.
Conrad, trapped in the agonizing awkwardness of adolescence, is a terrific role and young Druid is borderline spectacular in the part. You don’t know whether to hug him or smack him, but the pain and intelligence he radiates is like a spotlight illuminating the film’s themes.
Never sentimental, the film builds to a devastating emotional climax of aching beauty.