By Jonathon Sharp

Louder than Bombs, the first English-language feature from Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier, is a moving and kaleidoscopic exploration of a family fractured by loss, probing how a father and his two sons are coping with life after the death of their famous yet mysterious mother.

The woman, a renowned war photographer, died three years ago, and in the most mundane of ways: a car accident. Yet, as a retrospective of her work is about to be shown, a journalist colleague tells her widower, Gene (Gabriel Byre), that he’s writing a long piece suggesting the artist’s death was no accident. Gene doesn’t try to stop the writer. Instead, he realizes he needs to have a difficult conversation with his teenage son, Conrad (Devin Druid), who’s become a reclusive, almost nonverbal nerd, the very embodiment of teenage angst.

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Meanwhile, the teen’s older brother, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) is in town to sort through his mother’s archives. His wife has just given birth to their first child, and yet the young academic does everything he can to keep away from his fatherly responsibilities. Then, on top of this, the family patriarch, who adores his late wife to an almost saintly degree, is beginning to test the waters of another relationship.

From this starting point, the family is then seen along the fault lines left by the woman who, in many ways, defined their lives. Trier shows us, almost from an individual character’s vantage point, how each member relates to the other, and, beyond that, how they hold onto the memory of their mother/wife (Isabelle Huppert), whose enigmatic image haunts the film.

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A stylist through and through, Trier seems to take every chance he gets to shoot for style points. Amazingly, he not only bags the points, but he also elicits powerful emotional responses from his hyper-poetic visuals and straight-up literary sequences. More impressive still is that the film doesn’t descend into melodrama when the sons and their father finally start to work out their issues and do some real emotional heavy lifting.

This is not to say the film wraps up in a bow, but it does indeed leave one with a sense of hope. This is, in a way, a trick of Trier’s: He’s able to compose a beautiful and yet fragmented (or perhaps beautifully fragmented) image of a dysfunctional family and show us how each of its members, despite their significant flaws, can come to a deeper understanding of one another. The filmmaker hints that perhaps Tolstoy was wrong: Maybe some unhappy families can find happiness in their own way.

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Louder than Bombs is playing at the Lagoon Cinema.

Jonathon Sharp