Just like T.E. Lawrence and Buford Pusser before her, it seems cosmically wrong that celebrated war photographer Isabelle Reed died in a motor accident. However, the awkward circumstances surrounding her death are more likely closer to that of Ernest Hemingway. Her widower Gene Reed has tried to shield their youngest, moodiest son from the truth, but an upcoming press tribute is almost certain to broach the inconvenient subject. The father and his two sons will struggle to finally come to terms with her death in Joachim Trier’s first English language feature, Louder than Bombs (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
To mark a round number anniversary of Reed’s passing, her friends and admirers have organized a career retrospective exhibition. To tie-in, her wordsmith partner will write a personal appreciation of her life and work for the Times magazine or something very much like it. He duly warns Gene Reed that he will not duck the eight-hundred-pound gorilla. That only gives the long-suffering father a few days to level with the increasingly surly and anti-social Conrad. His grown brother Jonah seems to have dealt with her loss, but that is only a superficial impression. Deep down, the new father is probably the most dysfunctional member of the family.
For an angst-fueled domestic tragedy, a considerable amount of stuff happens in Bombs. Inevitably, it all boils down to life is not fair. As one might expect of the busy narrative, some of it works and some of it does not. Poor Gene Reed serves as the glue holding it all together, constantly sacrificing his subplots for the sake of others. However, Gabriel Byrne plays him with such profound sorrow, he gives the film a deeply humane core.
Of course, Isabelle Huppert outshines everyone as her namesake. She effectively haunts the film, dominating the ensemble despite her limited flashback screen-time. As the not so mature Jonah, Jesse Eisenberg also surprises with the quality of his work and the character flaws he reveals along the way. However, as the Number Two Son, Devin Druid feels like he is doing a third rate riff on Wes Bentley’s brooding teen in American Beauty. Conversely, David Strathairn dramatically elevates the film during his pivotal confrontation with Byrne as his wife’s suspiciously close colleague.
Indeed, the are moments in Bombs that rings with brutal honesty and forgiving compassion, but there is also a good deal of uncomfortable filler. Those messy interludes are rather surprising given the uniformly Spartan elegance of co-screenwriter Eskil Vogt’s directorial debut Blindness, which is sure to appreciate critically even further as time passes. Still, when Bombs connects, it leaves you smarting.