Devin Druid and Gabriel Byrne in "Louder Than Bombs." Lower photo of Joachim Trier by Iris Schneider.
"Louder Than Bombs," the first English-language film from Norwegian director Joachim Trier, takes a rather sober look at Isabelle Reed, a war photographer, and the toll her career choice takes on her family. It is a subject that has shown up affectingly in another feature film, "A Thousand Times Good Night" with Juliette Binoche, and will surface again when the upcoming film based on award-winning war photographer Lynsey Addario's autobiography, "It's What I Do," is released.
The attraction of war photography is compelling and complex. Being a news photographer, I understand the instinct we have to run towards danger while everyone else is running away. That drive has produced dramatic images that have changed the course of history: Nick Ut's image during the Vietnam War of children running down the road, their clothing and naked flesh burned by napalm, Carolyn Cole's images from the conflict in Liberia, Addario's images from the Middle East conflicts and Syria, and Tim Hetherington and James Nachtwey's work that shows the toll of war on civilians and eventually got Hetherington killed in the line of duty.
But "Louder Than Bombs" attempts to show the toll that the war photographer's choice to document this hell, and her death while back at home under questionable circumstances, exacts on her family who wait for her at home. In coming home, the main character, played powerfully by Isabel Huppert, suffers from PTSD: she discovers it is harder to find peace when she returns to her suburban New York home than it was to dodge bombs and artillery in a war zone. The adrenaline rush while confronting conflict becomes addictive, as does the desire to make a difference in the world, to tell the stories of the real effects of war on innocents and the soldiers on the front lines. But the film confronts the possibly sexist question: in attempting to save the world, has she inflicted harm on her own family? Trier's choice of a mother as the photographer seems aimed at stacking the deck beyond the concerns one would feel for a male photographer and I'm not sure I agree with that difference.
The story takes place three years after her death, when the family and a close colleague gather to edit her images and memorabilia for a retrospective show. In coming together to go through her effects, each family member must deal again with their own trauma surrounding her life, her death (or was it her suicide?) and their own issues as they try to move on, remake their lives and examine the secrets they have held close and avoided confronting. The linear story is offset by some beautiful dream sequences that bring an eloquence to the tale and add another affecting dimension, exposing the inner lives of the characters. While photographs never lie, every photographer chooses what to put in and leave out of the frame. So it is with memories, Trier seems to be saying. Each individual's truth may vary. Each character needed to make their own story about Huppert's death in order to move on. "This is a film that tries to portray the minds of the characters as much as the events around them," Trier said. "Their thinking, their dreams, their memory are all that matters."
While her two sons are proud of the impact her images have had, and her husband willingly left his own acting career to look after the family while she traveled from war zone to war zone, there is no doubt that constantly worrying about whether she would come home alive took a toll on her family, as it does I'm sure on any conflict photographer or war correspondent. Gabriel Byrne and Jesse Eisenberg play the damaged husband and older son, but it is the young son played deftly by Devin Druid who seems to be the planet around whom the others revolve. Despite his adolescent sullenness, he exudes a boyish wonder as he tries to grow up and figure out who he is and will become. Even with his adolescent struggles, he is definitely, according to Trier, "insightful beyond his age," and turns in a very moving performance.
Despite a plot more convoluted than it needs to be, the issues raised about personal choices and their consequences, family secrets and the complicated paths in and out of grief, give you a lot to think about.