To me Joachim Trier‘s Louder Than Bombs, an ennui-laden, Euro-style Ordinary People stuffed with the usual suburban, middle-class downer intrigues and featuring one of the most reprehensible teenaged characters in the history of motion pictures, felt contrived and gently infuriating. Too many aspects felt wrong and miscalculated or even hateful, and once the tally reached critical levels I began to sink into my usual exasperation (faint moaning, leaning forward, checking my watch).
“Uh-oh, this isn’t working,” I began saying to myself at around the ten-minute mark. Later on I was saying, “Wow, this really isn’t working.” Later on I was muttering worse things.
Bombs is basically about a father and two sons grappling with the death of their wife/mother, and the dysfunctional behavior that emerges in her absence. Dad, a Long Island-based high-school teacher, is played by aging, overly sensitive, watery-eyed Gabriel Byrne. Son #1, a mild-mannered college prof and mystifyingly irresponsible young dad, is played by Jesse Eisenberg, wearing a bizarre straight-hair wig instead of his usual curlies. Son #2, the above-mentioned demon from Hades, is played by Devin Druid. Isabelle Huppert plays the dead wife/mom — a renowned, N.Y. Times-endorsed war photographer who died some months ago in a local highway accident.
I found the various choices, behaviors and mannerisms of the three males so irritating that my mantra quickly became “I don’t want to know about your dysfunctional response to the death of your wife/mother, get over it…I don’t want to know about your dysfunctional response to the death of your wife/mother, get over it,” etc.
Byrne basically plays a glum but sensitive girlyman. He keeps saying to Druid “are you okay?” and “what are you doing?” and “we need to talk” and “how’s the video game going…who are you killing?” God, how I wish Byrne would give up on this shit (almost certainly inspired by his absorbing, much-discussed performance as a therapist in HBO’s In Treatment) and go back to playing sullen, sarcastic, scowling tough guys (i.e., Miller’s Crossing). His grieving-husband is so gentle and soft-spoken and so willing to listen and offer kindly, unselfish attention that I wanted to shout at the screen, “Will you fucking grow a pair?”
The one who’s taken Huppert’s death the hardest is Druid’s Conrad (an allusion to Timothy Hutton‘s Ordinary People character?) — seething, everything bottled up, living in his little “leave me alone, I hate you” head. My basic attitude was “fuck you and your pain, you little shit.” But I lost it when he viciously lashed out at Byrne and particularly at a fellow teacher (Amy Ryan) whom Byrne has been seeing after a suitable period of mourning. This on top of the flat expression in his tiny weasel eyes and his boilerplate video-game withdrawal behavior made me want to slap this loathsome little fuck or worse.
On top of which his taste in women is at the very least curious. He’s supposed to be this nascent creative genius with all kinds of interesting energy, and he falls for a pudgy girl who’s obviously light on the brain cells. (At least Hutton had the smarts to choose the classy Elizabeth McGovern.)
On top of which Druid has one of those milky, freckly complexions and one of those bee-stung Russian noses that he couldn’t possibly have inherited from Byrne or Huppert or anyone else in their line. Indie filmmakers almost never cast parents or children for their similarities — they cast them because (a) they’re available, (b) presumably good and (c) aren’t horrendously expensive.
If only Conrad had been killed on the highway instead of Huppert, Louder Than Bombs would be somewhat more tolerable. I haven’t felt this kind of visceral response to a teenaged character since Ezra Miller‘s evil psycho in Lynne Ramsay‘s We Need To Talk About Kevin.
The best scene in the film happens at the very beginning in a hospital room between Eisenberg and his pretty blonde wife, with Eisenberg gently holding their just-born child. He goes out to find his wife some food but everything is closed, but he happens to run into an ex-girlfriend (Rachel Brosnahan) whose ailing mother has been admitted, and within minutes Eisenberg, still attracted, tells her he’s in the hospital because his wife has just died.
It’s revealed during the first third that a N.Y. Times overview of Huppert’s life and career is being written by a Times correspondent, played by David Strathairn, and that the piece will contain a conclusion that Huppert committed suicide by driving smack into an oncoming truck. How can anyone possibly know that for sure? How could anyone eliminate the possibility that she’d simply fallen asleep at the wheel? Or that she’d somehow lost control for whatever reason?
It’s later revealed that Strathairn was having an off-and-on overseas affair with Huppert. This raises an obvious concern about journalistic impartiality unless Strathairn fully cops to this in the article. If he doesn’t and the affair is discovered down the road by Times editors, Strathairn would be fired. The movie never even glances at this.
There’s a brief moment, possibly imaginary, in which Byrne is shown driving the family car with Huppert sitting shotgun and Conrad in the back seat. Byrne begins to doze at the wheel and Huppert is shown staring at him, impassively, saying and doing nothing. Who does this when the driver of a car is nodding out? Even in a dream?
A basic problem, I’m guessing, is that the Norweigan-born Trier had trouble fully translating the nuances and undercurrents into English, resulting, as one British critic has noted, in “a tonal and structural difficulty…[with] the resulting film feeling not merely like a knockoff of American Beauty, but like a pastiche of something by Atom Egoyan or Denis Villeneuve: a tiresome Euro-American pudding…very flat, very self-conscious and bafflingly disappointing.”