LOUDER THAN BOMBS begins with a perfect picture of family love. Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) is marveling at his newborn as his wife Amy, (Megan Ketch) looks on beaming. Jonah is beaming, too, and he is aghast that he has forgotten to bring his wife the food she had requested when she discovered that the hospital tray held nothing edible. He goes out in search of something for the exhausted mother of his newborn, and things get interesting. He encounters an old girlfriend, Erin (Rachel Brosnahan), there to be with her mother in her last days. When she makes the assumption that Jonah is there because his wife, too, is dying, he doesn’t correct her. There is the most fleeting of hesitation as he then accepts her heartfelt embrace before returning to mother and child and further basking. For the rest of the film, such tiny subterfuges will loom large, not just for the careless nature of the transgression, but also for the ramifications and reckonings that they will engender down the road.
Jonah’s family is in crisis, and has been since the death of his mother, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), in a car accident three years earlier, leaving father Gene (Gabriel Byrne) to deal with Jonah’s increasingly withdrawn 15-year-old brother, Conrad (Devin Druid). A retrospective of Isabelle’s work as a conflict photographer, along with an article written by her collaborator, Richard (David Strathairn) the war correspondent whose work Isabelle documented, is the catalyst for secrets to be revealed that alter the family dynamic. It will also raise difficult questions about whether choices that have been made were selfish, selfless, or something altogether different.
This is a film of quiet but shattering intensity. When Jonah, going through his mother’s last photographs, the ones no one has seen yet, and sees the self-portrait she took, the lifeless eyes and the expression that is devoid of any emotion, his reaction is subtle, but there is no denying the punch in the gut that he has just experienced. It’s no less powerful than the confrontation between Gene and Conrad, as the father begs his son to talk to him only to have the boy pull a plastic bag over his head and close it around his neck.
The sudden outbursts of strong emotion are the result of careful orchestration by filmmaker Joachim Trier, who has taken a RASHOMON approach to the story. Differing viewpoints of the same moments don’t so much create heroes, villains, or victims as they chart the accumulation of small lies, innocent miscommunications, and sins of omission that reveal a need for closure that started before Isabelle’s death, and the ragged psyches struggling to find a way back to normality that may never have existed. They also reveal the unexpected strengths where they are least expected, and vulnerabilities that are almost too painful to watch.
LOUDER THAN BOMBS is an emotional thriller of the first order with intelligent performances that demand an emotional investment from the audience. It’s a suspenseful mystery of intention and inertia as its characters grapple with feelings they can’t control, situations they didn’t expect, and suspicions that they don’t want confirmed.