By Leonard Klady

Review: Louder Than Bombs

Louder Than Bombs is a family drama about the emotional fallout of the death of a woman death on her husband and her two sons. The filmmakers take up the story three years after the tragedy, when her work—she was a war zone photographer—is to be exhibited, along with the publication of a monograph.

Directed by Joachim Trier and written with his usual co-screenwriter Eskil Vogt, the Norwegian filmmaker’s fraught with the inner demons of the living and the dead. Though hardly the button-down stereotypes of the American family that was reflected in distant decades in Ordinary People to American Beauty, the surviving trio appear to have adopted the tentative aspect of behavior that belies their true nature. What’s led to such a fierce defense is the film’s other haunting question.

Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) spent decades on the frontlines of hot wars and lingered past the heat of the hostilities to record their devastating consequence. She’s less adrenalin junkie than a slave to the professional pursuit of capturing images that encapsulate horror and humanity in the landscape. Though absence is a hallmark of her family life, flashbacks demonstrate that she was engaged when she returned home.

Ironically, or not, when she finally decides to give up war photography, she dies in a fatal car crash with a big rig. The “or not” is the belief that it wasn’t an accident and that’s about to be exposed in a newspaper piece. Her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) and eldest son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) know that scenario, but teenager Conrad (David Druid) was spared that complexity at the time.

The exhibition brings the family back together, at least physically. Jonah moved away, married and has just celebrated the birth of a child. Gene, a high school teacher and former actor (there’s a hilarious clip from the 1987 Hello Again to reflect his former glory), has spectacularly failed in any meaningful communication with Conrad. He also suffers acute nerdiness that manifests itself in acting out and digging in.

It’s fitting, perhaps even inevitable, and certainly organic, that aftermath is the signature of Louder Than Bombs. The past informs but life goes on. The dilemma confronting the three men isn’t entirely the result of Isabelle’s death. Jonah’s is that he beginning to question whether he wants a seemingly traditional family; Gene is struggling with his involvement in a new relationship and Conrad is confronting typical teenage challenges he will assuredly overcome in a few years.

The visual palette of Louder Than Bombs opts for somber tones and images are cropped to accentuate the confinement of each individual. Eisenberg, seemingly the pivot, plays his character with a sly quality of detachment. He vainly fends off the very things he has to know come close to the truth. But the glue ultimately is provided by Byrne. His is a relentlessly interior performance that frustrates at every turn and yet is so impeccably honest one cannot help but be enthralled by his inability to break out of his shell.

The explosions in Louder Than Bombs are primarily subterranean and therefore sonically muffled. Nonetheless if you’re still perplexed by the riddle of the title it is SILENCE.

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin