Of all the afflictions in the world, depression may be the most challenging to capture accurately on film.
It’s a mental affliction that is not always easy to diagnose. It’s not limited to people who walk around with a sad face and slumped shoulders; it’s far more complex a condition than that. (And it’s also how those who may have severe, clinical depression escape diagnosis and sometime end up committing suicide.) Yet that’s been the default assumption in films that deal with the subject, and that’s what makes Louder Than Bombs such a frustrating film to experience.
Oh, there’s no doubt that director Joachim Trier has great empathy for his characters. Trier and cowriter Eskil Vogt have already collaborated on two acclaimed features (Reprise (2006), Oslo, August 31st), as well as three short films, and though I’ve not seen any of their efforts before now, it quickly becomes apparent that they are skilled at crafting screenplays that allow the characters to demonstrate their individual personalities, at least to a certain extent.
Perhaps it’s because Louder Than Bombs revolves around four family members that they felt free to blur the lines of individuality. If so, there’s no doubt that the father Gene (Gabriel Byrne), mother Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), older son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and younger son Conrad (Devin Druid) are all related. They share a glum, low-key disposition, and a reticence to speak plainly to one another.
Instead, they keep their feelings sown up inside their thin skins, constantly absorbing one bruising life experience after another until it wear them down to the point of apathy. They are so absorbed with their individual needs and pains that they are reluctant to consider their other loved ones may be suffering in a similar manner, or that they themselves might be the source of discomfort (at best) or agony (at worst) to others.
Isabelle is the most notable member of the family, and she’s been dead for two years.
A celebrated war photographer, Isabelle was killed in an automobile accident stateside after she decided to retire from dangerous overseas assignments. But was it an accident? Gene and Jonah think not, believing that Isabelle was so unhappy after retirement that she committed suicide by swerving in front of an oncoming truck.
That’s also the belief of journalist and family friend Richard (David Strathain), who informs Gene of his intention to write an article for The New York Times that will pay tribute to Isabelle but also include his belief that she committed suicide.
The film itself presents contrary evidence about the accident, and so it’s not clear what, exactly, happened that’s convinced Gene, Jonah and Richard of Isabelle’s suicidal inclinations. But that’s a side point. Mainly, Louder Than Bombs is preoccupied with the manifest depression of Gene, Jonah, and Conrad, and how they act out their negative feelings.
The film proceeds at a stately pace that allows one to sit back and admire the glum performances by all the leading players, as well as a supporting cast that includes Amy Ryan as a teacher involved with Gene — at the same high school where Conrad attends! — Rachel Brosnahan as Jonah’s former lover, who doesn’t know that he’s now married and just became a father for the first time, and Ruby Jerins as Melanie, Conrad’s mostly oblivious object of infatuation.
Louder Than Bombs certainly looks elegantly fine, thanks to Trier’s usual cinematographer Jakob Ihre, and as noted, the pace is stately, created by Trief’s past collaborator and editor Olivier Bugge Coutte. Trier also again used Ola Flottum to compose an appropriately chilly musical score.
One can’t shake the feeling, though, that for all its good intentions and respectful thoughts about the subject, Louder Than Bombs doesn’t truly understand what it’s like to suffer from clinical depression, or at least how to portray that in a manner that is cinematic and also digs beneath the surface from a psychological standpoint.
Really, the film feels like a visit to a psychiatrist’s office, where tea and sympathy are offered and the doctor can only hope that his patients eventually figure out how to get better on their own.
The film opens on Friday, April 29 at Angelika Film Centers in Dallas and Plano.