If “great” television is regularly framed in the context of novels, the finest cinema is analogous to the short story. The spatial constraints force a concision of language, replacing excess of plot and exposition with nuance, and using aesthetics to deepen characters and situations. If Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs is a short story, it aims for the psychological complexity and ambivalent grace that defines the greatest authors of the form. Grief pulses through it, but Trier views it not as one great tidal wave of misery but a complex, interlocking estuary where various tendrils of sorrow meet and turn brackish and murky.

The central event at the heart of the film, the death of famed war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert), is largely just a catalyst for exploring how both her passing, and her life, affects those closest to her. Trier communicates this in an early sequence that lays out Isabelle’s accomplishments in a documentary prepared for an exhibition of her work with sentimentality and praise, only to cut to her widower, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), with a look of pained acquiescence on his face that suggests a mild revulsion to now existing as nothing more than the executor of an estate. Immediately, focus is redirected away from the trauma of the death to less clear aftershocks of both the pressures of standing in for a departed celebrity and of the lingering conflicts that raged during Isabelle’s life.

Gene, naturally taciturn and stultified by his public grief, forms the weak point in a triangle completed by his two sons, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and Conrad (Devin Druid), who freely exploit his emotional weaknesses to shore up their own. Jonah nearly crushes his father when he returns home to help with the exhibit without his wife and newborn child, ignoring how Gene might feel about not meeting his grandson to focus on escaping his new-found responsibility. Conrad, strongly suggested to be on the autism spectrum, only comes out of his shell to emit fearsome rages; Gene is so afraid to trigger one of these outbursts that father-son time consists of Gene morosely following Conrad home from school in his car, occasionally calling him to make small talk as both lie about where they are.

To trace the overlapping tensions and sorrows that sustain such a fractured family, Trier employs both flashbacks and perspective jumps that distort any linear simplification in favor of constant re-evaluation of each character. Trier also shoots a number of dream sequences in which the production quality heightens, the image sharpens and, invariably, something disturbing happens. In one immaculately constructed sequence, we see Isabelle relating to Gene a dream in which she was raped, which Trier recreates with an unnerving close-up on her completely unaffected face, until a pan out accompanies her revelation that Gene was also in the dream, merely sitting in his car feet away and watching without reaction. Hyper-real shots with heightened sound capture Conrad’s sensitivity and the specificity of his memory, as well as his inability to not constantly imagine his mother’s death in grisly, slow-motion detail.

For all these flourishes, however, most of the film is shot in natural-toned, handheld shots with minimal motion, attuned only to the small reactions of the actors. Even the dreams and memories serve only as fodder to study the faces of those experiencing them. Huppert brings her icy countenance to flashbacks to suggest not a loveless person, but someone struggling with mental health issues exacerbated by a life of embedding in war zones to document the horror of life in such places. Druid mitigates Conrad’s melodramatic rages with fleeting attempts at amiability, capturing the halting, nervous approaches of someone wholly unschooled in normalcy. Eisenberg can be aggressively sardonic at times, but here he is at his best, communicating how Jonah uses his sarcasm to deflect from his own sadness, or how he can displace his own urge to regress by teasing Conrad for his World of Warcraft addiction.

For a movie that constantly makes one anticipate some great rupture, Louder Than Bombs is all about the small moments. Conrad flinging himself onto a grave as his father looks on, only for the boy to later reveal he knows his dad trails him and he just wanted to mess with him. Jonah intruding upon a rare moment of Conrad’s bliss as he dances alone, then unconsciously torturing his self-conscious bother by not leaving and instead coming into the room and asking “What are we listening to” with nightmarish invasiveness. But there are also the many, many moments of smaller camaraderie, as in Jonah finding his dad’s old acting headshots and cracking jokes as Gene laughs, less out of genuine amusement than relief that his son is talking to him. Perhaps the quintessence of these contradictory, unpredictable interactions comes with a scene of Gene telling the story of the time he joined World of Warcraft in an attempt to meet up with Conrad’s character, perhaps fostering intimacy by this complete divorce of physical closeness. He trained and trained and leveled up and searched, and one day, he finally came across his son’s avatar. As Gene basked in this moment of beautiful serendipity, not even opening a chat because he was too busy being pleased, Conrad immediately drew his sword and killed this new challenger.

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