The current fashion in movies is for long takes (or, in the case of Alejandro Iñárritu, faked long takes) and a camera that quivers and swerves alongside the characters, which can be extremely potent but limits films to real time and real space. The Norwegian director Joachim Trier has always been more of a montage guy. In his mournful, probing drama Louder Than Bombs, he uses flurries of images (along with first-person narration) to capture peoples’ teeming inner spaces. Point-of-view is passed like a baton among the tortured main characters — a father (Gabriel Byrne), two sons (Jesse Eisenberg and Devin Druid), and a mother (Isabelle Huppert) who’s dead before the action proper starts but who comes to life (and has her own inner space) in flashbacks. Swept along by this flood of memories, dreams, and fantasies, you might feel as if everyone onscreen is the protagonist of his or her own novel.
The Norwegian director (along with his co-screenwriter, Eskil Vogt) came on the scene with a 2006 film called Reprise. A jumpy, hyper-literate comedy with ironic narration about two pals who submit their novels to a publisher at the same time, it’s like Speed Racer for the bohemian intelligentsia — you come out humming the syntax. Five years later, he made the stunning Oslo, August 31, the second adaptation (after Louis Malle) of the novel The Fire Within, which chronicles the last day in the life of unstable young man: Trier takes you so far into his protagonist’s head that when it ends you might think you need to go into rehab. These are not avant-garde films — they’re extremely accessible. But they have an original and disarming language. Even Louder Than Bombs, Trier’s first English-language film and arguably his most conventional, has its own unique vocabulary.
Its structure is also peculiar. Louder Than Bombs opens in a hospital, where the wife of Jonah (Eisenberg) has just had a baby and Jonah bumps into an old girlfriend (a jumpy, winsome Rachel Brosnahan). In the course of their encounter, Eisenberg does a double take that’s so funny it might be the start of a good sex farce. But then Trier moves — with no transition — into a TV obituary for Jonah’s mother, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a war photographer who died not in Afghanistan but in a car crash near the family home in Nyack, New York. Early on we learn what wasn’t made public: that this was a suicide. Isabelle’s husband, Gene (Byrne), knows that, of course, and so does Jonah. But the news was held back from the troubled younger son, Conrad (Druid), who’s now in high school. He’ll find out soon, though. There’s going to be a retrospective of Isabelle’s work, and a colleague of hers (David Strathairn) plans to tell the truth in a New York Times essay.
Louder Than Bombs is fueled by the imminence of that revelation, but it’s always backing up, leaping forward, and spinning off into tangents. In truth, I’m not sure the movie jells — even the title, from an album by The Smiths, seems oblique. But I loved it anyway. Trier wants to pack as much as he can into every last second using every tool in his cinematic arsenal, and the way he flows from perspective to perspective has a musical integrity. In one elaborate sequence, the anxious Gene (a high-school teacher) follows his glum, uncommunicative Conrad from an English class to a playground to a restaurant to the cemetery where Isabelle is buried. Then we see the sequence from Conrad’s vantage. In that class, a girl (Ruby Jerins) with whom he’s infatuated begins to read aloud from a novel — when it suddenly hits us that the words she’s reading have been transformed in Conrad’s mind into the story of his mother and her fatal crash, which he imagines in two alternate versions, complete with flying glass and a somersaulting car.
The material world is always subordinate to the characters’ thoughts and emotions, even those of Isabelle. We’re there in her dream of making love while her husband watches, indifferently, from a nearby car. She tells us that, home from the war, she feels not unwanted or unloved but unneeded, extraneous. It’s as if Trier is saying, “Photographs show much, but in a film we can go so far beyond the surface.” Conrad waves his hands and flutters, from afar, the hair of the girl he loves. His mother stares into the camera, just stares, as if she’s reaching from beyond the grave — or is this her point-of-view from the other side?
Some of the story lines aren’t filled in, especially Jonah’s alienation from his wife (Megan Ketch) and child. And there isn’t enough — there’s rarely enough these days — of Amy Ryan, who plays Conrad’s English teacher and Gene’s lover. But Trier makes you feel intimate with these people. Eisenberg turns Jonah’s prickly avoidance — which could be so hateful — into a source of poignancy: Jonah has strong opinions, none of which cohere. Druid’s mixture of sullen and yearning helps you see beyond his scowls. (The actor is best known as the younger incarnation of the title character’s son in Olive Kittredge.) Byrne’s ineffectual attempts to reach out make him seem a ghost in his own life — almost as ghostly as Huppert’s Isabelle.
As I wait with excitement to see Byrne’s James Tyrone Sr. in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (along with Jessica Lange, Michael Shannon, and John Gallagher Jr., who played the older incarnation of Olive Kittredge’s son), I can’t help thinking vis-à-vis Louder Than Bombs of Eugene O’Neill’s famous line from the play, “Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people.” Trier isn’t the poet that O’Neill is, but as a filmmaker, he takes you inside the fog and brings those stammers to life.