Screen grief usually comes in two flavors: full-frontal-assault emotional (wrenching of hands, rending of garments) and uncomfortably numb (stoic thousand-yard stares, lone tears silently trailing down cheeks). Filmgoers will sense they're getting the slow-and-low version in Joachim Trier's tale of mourning right after the lights go up on a posthumous highlight reel of a deceased conflict photographer (Isabelle Huppert). Her husband, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), nods solemnly at the tribute, set to play in front of a prestigious exhibit devoted to his late wife's work. Then her journalistic colleague (David Strathairn) tells the widower that he's doing a piece for the New York Times, and plans on revealing that the car accident that took her life ... well, it may not have been so accidental.
Many folks might scream, curse, throw a punch or upend a table. Gene merely blinks and then asks, calmly, "Are you sure that's a good idea?" Louder than bombs, indeed.
He's much more worried about how their two sons will handle the news, especially Conrad (Devin Druid), a teenager deeply devoted to Warcraft-type video games and uncommunicative sulking. And while the older son, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), already suspected that Mom's passing was possibly self-inflicted, he's not doing so well either — new fatherhood and running in to an old flame has shaken him a bit. (Sure, he can invent Facebook and get Batman and Superman to tussle, but commitment and adult responsibilities ... let's not ask the impossible here, people.) None of these three seem to have properly processed their loss over all these years. The movie may take its title from a Smiths album, but had it chosen R.E.M's "Everybody Hurts," no points would have been docked.
The former national skateboarding champion of Norway — no, really — Trier has emerged as one of the most interesting filmmakers to come out the modern Scandi-cine scene, specializing in vibrant, fresh-air odes to beginnings (2006's Reprise) and endings (2011's painful portrait of a suicide Oslo, August 31st). Working on his first English-language movie with longtime collaborator Eskil Vogt, the director brings his signature storytelling flourishes into the mix, notably in a scene involving Conrad's free-form diary entries — a montage-driven rush that invokes his mother, death, family, his computer inventory, and a giddy relationship with language as a salve.
Given a flashback, a dream sequence or a voiceover reading in which he can go impressionistic, Trier hits paydirt; it's the more straightforward business of making these characters feel alive or maintaining narrative momentum that seems to stifle him a bit here. He's namechecked Ordinary People as an inspiration in interviews, and you can sense the actors aiming for that movie's notion of denial as a detente between shutting down or emotionally breaking down. But while the lack of histrionics (with one notable classroom exception) is preferable to gross sentimentality, the chill here never satisfying freezes over or thaws, and the way peripheral plots strands are left to atrophy, especially Eisenberg's half-baked predicament, does his fine cast no favors. Louder Than Bombs mutes the melodrama for so long that it accidentally smothers the actual drama as well. Less fuse, more detonation might have worked wonders.