Norwegian director Joachim Trier (Reprise, Oslo, and August 31st) makes his English-language debut with Louder Than Bombs, an intimate portrait of a father and his two sons, men who can't move on after the death of the wife and mother (Isabelle Huppert) they lost.
Huppert's character, who's seen mostly in flashbacks, wasn't only a suburban mom: As a celebrated war photographer, she won acclaim for her portraits of human devastation. She and her husband (Gabriel Byrne) sometimes fought over her need to endanger her life by pursuing the kind of indelible images that often win prizes. Her work also threw her into prolonged fits of depression.
No wonder, then, that Huppert's character perished in a head-on collision near her home, not in some remote corner of Afghanistan. She may have been like those military people who see terrible combat and have trouble ever going home again. She'd seen too much.
In one way or another, father and sons all are foundering.
A one-time actor who has become a school teacher, Dad is having an affair with another teacher (Amy Ryan). Their relationship must be kept secret because the family's youngest son (Devin Druid) attends the high school where both Byrne and Ryan's characters teach.
The older son (Jesse Eisenberg) is a father himself, but he's not really committed to his marriage.
Trier establishes this dissatisfaction early on when Eisenberg's Jonah meets an old girlfriend (Rachel Bresnahan) in the hallways of the hospital where his baby has just been born. Jonah allows Bresnahan's character to jump to the conclusion that there's something seriously wrong with his wife (Megan Ketch), perhaps that she even died.
The youngest boy -- Conrad by name -- hasn't been told that his mother's death was a suicide, something one of mom's former colleagues (David Srathairn) is about to reveal in a piece he's writing for The New York Times.
The screenplay brings father and sons together when Eisenberg's Jonah shows up to sort through negatives left by his mother, an unexamined cache that may contain pictures that belong in an upcoming retrospective of her work, the occasion for the Times article.
Trier likes to bring his camera close to his characters' faces, which -- in some ways -- serves as a source of irony: The camera closes in on these characters, but seeing them in close-up isn't the same as knowing them. These close-ups also help convey the impression that the characters have difficulty seeing beyond themselves.
Druid's performance as an angry teenager tends to dominate the proceedings, but Byrne is entirely convincing as a father trying to keep his composure when faced with his youngest son's terrible recalcitrance. Eisenberg holds up his end of the bargain in a smaller role as an unhappy young professor who doesn't seem particularly interested in getting to the bottom of his discontent.
Trier bravely deals with difficult subjects and his style -- which involves shifting times and alternating points of view -- keeps the material from lapsing into melodrama.
Sometimes the movie engages in Rashomon-like structural ploys, showing the same incident from two points of view.
In one these, Byrne's Gene can't resist following his very unhappy teen-age son. He wants to know what the boy's doing. The same incident takes on a new meaning when repeated from the young man's perspective.
Despite a willingness to explore the aftermath of grief, Louder than Bombs has so much on its plate that it can't quite anchor its emotions. Trier gives us plenty to chew on and, perhaps, not enough to digest.