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A Family Drama Unfolds Through Shifting Viewpoints In 'Louder Than Bombs'


This is FRESH AIR. Film critic David Edelstein has a review of the new film by Norwegian director Joachim Trier. It's a family drama called "Louder Than Bombs," starring Gabriel Byrne as a high school teacher and Jesse Eisenberg and Devin Druid as his sons. All three are haunted by the memory of the wife and mother who died in a car crash after returning home from an assignment as a war photographer.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: In "Louder Than Bombs," the point of view is passed like a baton among the tortured main characters - a father, two sons and a mother who's dead before the action starts but comes to life in flashbacks. We're privy to their memories, dreams and fantasies. It's as if everyone is the protagonist of his or her own short story. The mother, Isabelle, played by Isabelle Huppert, was a war photographer who died not in Afghanistan, but in a car crash near the family home north of New York City. Early on, we learn what wasn't made public, that it was a suicide. Her husband, Gene, played by Gabriel Byrne, knows that, of course, and so does her older son, Jonah, now a married professor and played by Jesse Eisenberg. But the news was held back from the troubled younger son, Conrad, played by Devin Druid, who's now in high school. He'll find out soon, though. Several years after Isabelle's death, there's going to be a retrospective of her work and a colleague of hers played by David Strathairn plans to tell the truth in a New York Times essay. Even with that newspaper story coming, Jonah doesn't want Conrad to know what really happened. He thinks he can keep Conrad in the dark.


JESSE EISENBERG: (As Jonah) Hey, come sit down. I just wanted to talk to you, and I wanted to know if you ever think about mom. Do you ever think about the car accident?

DEVIN DRUID: (As Conrad) Why?

EISENBERG: (As Jonah) Well, there's no story in a car accident, you know? So people have to make one up. They have to invent something so that they have something to blame or something, you know, it's...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Hello?

EISENBERG: (As Jonah) ...Very normal. But, honestly, it was just bad luck. It's not like it was anyone's fault or anything.

EDELSTEIN: "Louder Than Bombs" has a very peculiar structure. The opening scene in a hospital, where Jonah's wife has just had a baby and he bumps into an old girlfriend, could be the start of a good sex farce. The movie is always backing up, jumping forward and spinning off into tangents. In truth, I'm not sure it gels. Even the title, from an album by The Smiths, seems oblique. But I loved it anyway. The filmmaker, Joaquim Trier, wants to pack as much as he can into every last second using every tool in his cinematic arsenal.

The Norwegian director came on the scene with a 2006 film called "Reprise." It was a jumpy, hyper-literate comedy with ironic narration about two pals who submit their novels to a publisher at the same time. Next, he made the stunning "Oslo, August 31st," the second adaptation of the novel "The Fire Within" that chronicles the last day in the life of an unstable young man. Trier takes you so far into his protagonist's head that when it ended, I thought I'd need rehab. These are not avant-garde films. They're extremely accessible. But they have an original and disarming syntax. Even "Louder Than Bombs," his first English-language film and arguably his most conventional, has its own language.

Consider an elaborate sequence in which the worried Gene, a high school teacher, follows his glum, uncommunicative younger son from class to a playground, to a restaurant, to the cemetery. Then we see the sequence from Conrad's vantage. In that class, a girl with whom he's infatuated begins to read aloud from a novel when it suddenly hits us that the words she's reading had been transformed in Conrad's mind into the story of his mother and her fatal crash, which he imagines in two different versions, complete with flying glass and as somersaulting car. The material world is always subordinate to thoughts and emotions.

The performances are intimate and touching, Devin Druid's mixture of sullen and yearning, Jesse Eisenberg's prickly avoidance, Gabriel Byrne's ineffectual attempts to reach out, Isabelle Huppert’s ghostly alienation. The fashion in movies these days is for long takes and a camera that quivers and swerves with the characters, which is all very fine, except it's limited to real time and real space. In "Louder Than Bombs," Joachim Trier uses flurries of images to capture a teeming inner space The movie is insistently alive.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interviews with Ray Romano, Sarah Paulson and Eric Fair, a former interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison, check out our podcast. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.