“With Louder Than Bombs, [Joachim] Trier continues his obsession with conflicted young people, entering the elite of Cannes Competition and making his English-language debut,” writes Glenn Heath Jr. at Little White Lies. “Set in upstate New York, the film pays close attention to the small, frail threads holding a middle class family together after the death of their matriarch, a famed war photographer named Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert). Jonah (Jessie Eisenberg), a smart young academic, has just witnessed the birth of his first child…. Jonah’s teenage brother Conrad (Devin Druid) lives at home with their father, Gene (Gabriel Byrne). Things are not going well. Both are suffering silently and incapable of finding common ground…. Louder Than Bombs doesn’t share the raw and ambiguous resolve of [Oslo, August 31st]; not many films do. But it does prove that Trier is a filmmaker passionately attuned to the types of long-gestating conflicts of miscommunication and doubt that most studio pictures often sensationalize.”
For the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw, it’s all “a bit muffled and very anti-climactic: a rather silly, pointless and directionless film” that “feels not merely like a knockoff of American Beauty, but like a pastiche of something by Atom Egoyan or Denis Villeneuve: a tiresome Euro-American pudding.”
But Variety‘s Peter Debruge argues that Trier, “who’s certainly gifted enough to have turned in a passive-viewing tearjerker,” has made a film that “asks audiences to bring their brains, eschewing grand catharsis in favor of subtle psychological nuance… Frankly, the sight of these characters coping with Isabelle’s death isn’t nearly as rich or ambitious as another parallel theme that Trier and writing partner Eskil Vogt have opted to explore with the project: the issue of artistic ambition and how committing to a creative career (or abandoning it, as the case may be) shapes our lives and the relationships we maintain with loved ones.”
The Playlist‘s Oliver Lyttelton writes that, “while Bombs is already proving to be divisive, I found it another beguiling and fascinating picture from the filmmaker…. Trier’s always been one of the most literary filmmakers working today, and like a great novel, the director hops around in time and reality (there’s a number of fantasy sequences that mark the most visually striking things he’s ever filmed), jumping off the incident of Isabelle’s death to examine not just how it’s affected her family, but those further removed, too.”
Screen‘s Dan Fainaru argues that “the success of Trier’s deceptively complicated script relies to a great extent on working with the same technical team who have been there since the beginning. They include cinematographer Jakob Ihre and editor Olivier Bugge Coutté who has tied an unusually complicated collection of puzzle pieces into one coherent picture.”
“While it’s well acted and has strong moments on a scene-by-scene basis, the film lacks an emotional center, keeping the impact cool and diffuse where it should be affecting,” finds David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter.
“There’s a dead end aspect to subplots involving infidelity, lies, implied sinister online activities, and first love,” finds Barbara Scharres at RogerEbert.com. “Huppert and her secrets ultimately seem like mere props in a film that can’t decide what it wants to be.”
Updates: “With its dead ends and changes in perspectives,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club, “Louder Than Bombs is the kind of multi-faceted, ambitious, incompletely resolved American drama that American filmmakers never seem to get around to making: novelistic in subject and structure, but completely cinematic in the way it expresses itself, even if Trier’s camera style never rises to the sophistication of his influences. Still, this is a film of superb performances, mysteries, and moments of earthy poeticism, like the way a drunk girl’s piss snaking down a driveway cuts into a teenage boy’s tear. Some might complain that this is a movie about people doing nothing about nothing, but it contains plenty.”
“Fans of scintillating form will have little trouble forgiving the overheated yet underwhelming content; others should steer clear,” warns Mike D’Angelo at the Dissolve.
“Less than 24 hours since it received its world premiere,” writes David Jenkins for Montages, “the notion of filing a positively-hued critique… will now be considered a ‘defense’ rather than a stand-alone celebration of its manifold merits. This seems worth pointing out because the film is concerned with the way historical context can alter how we perceive a specific event from the past, on both an individual and collective level.” Bombs “appears to have been coolly received because it deigned to accept that life is, by its very nature, unconventional, meandering and rife with misery. It refuses to dole out easy answers, but is pregnant with an inquisitiveness about existence and human psychology which, even on its own, is worthy of high praise.”
“The jigsaw-puzzle pieces are things of considerable beauty,” writes Guy Lodge for Time Out. “Ornately and unusually shaped, they often fit together in strikingly counter-intuitive ways—the old rules of starting with the sky, or assembling the border from the straight edges, don’t apply. It’s the final picture they form that’s a little less interesting. A tasteful grieving-family weepie, it’s conceived and performed with utmost sincerity, yet lacks the intemperate human authenticity, the sense of profound strangeness in the everyday, that made Trier’s Reprise and Oslo, August 31st so hard to shake.”
Trier “gives free rein to the power of a narrative that explodes into a thousand swirling elements, plunging the audience into the maelstrom of imagination and memory,” writes Fabien Lemercier at Cineuropa. “This significant formal deconstructive ambition which will unsettle some for probably more than a year and which will almost certainly annoy others, has a slightly detrimental effect on the sympathy we feel towards the protagonists, which doesn’t at all stop Louder Than Bombs being a film that is worth seeing a second time.”
Updates, 5/19: “Louder Than Bombs‘ unobtrusive style, favoring chest-high medium shots with a loose camera able to follow characters around in space but always, above all, emphasizing their faces and emotions, suggests that the director’s move to American cinema may be a stepping stone to helming high-brow American television,” suggests Daniel Kasman in the Notebook. “His interests in drama (but not melodrama) bound by characters, a nuanced dramaturgy exploring individual psychology and how it plays into conventional social relationships… would, I feel, lose little moving to a small screen. Instead, I think Joachim Trier would invest that medium with a more observant, rather than expository and repetitive, dynamic, which is found in this film and makes it satisfying, but ultimately hampers Louder than Bombs from stepping up to the full force of its drama on the big screen.”
But for James Lattimer, writing at the House Next Door, this is “dully competent, glossily empty fare… To confer a bit of artsy edginess, Trier peppers this slickly shot, scripted-to-death family drama with flashbacks, dream sequences, and what-if scenes, but is always careful to rein things in well before they might get confusing, challenging, or interesting. His background in advertising is very much apparent here, with the images he finds to illustrate all these prim disturbances usually placing empty aesthetics before depth or reason, most blatantly in a crash sequence that showers Huppert in shards of pretty glass, a high budget ‘fasten your seat belt’ campaign just waiting to happen.”
“Beautifully shot by Jakob Ihre and with a score by Ola Fløttum that veers between discreet and propulsive as the mood demands, Louder Than Bombs is emotionally intelligent and certainly holds the attention, particularly during the first 30 minutes, but ultimately fails to live up to its initial promise,” finds Nick Roddick, dispatching to Sight & Sound.
Writing for Paste, Tim Grierson argues that “Louder Than Bombs is a smart treatment of material that’s littered with potential booby traps.” It “approaches terrain that’s been covered in everything from American Beauty to Little Children to Men, Women & Children. But Louder Than Bombs succeeds because Trier focuses so intently on his characters, avoiding the temptation to offer zeitgeist-y reflections on The Way We Live Today. The movie isn’t a sermon—it’s an expression of one family’s slow grieving process.”
“Byrne is as good as he has been for decades,”writes Donald Clarke in the Irish Times. “Eisenberg once again hones his high-preppie sensibility. Huppert’s photographs look like news photographs staged for a film in the Cannes competition. It looks, in short, like it might turn into a fine film whenever it finally gets started. We’re still waiting.”
Updates, 5/20: “For an hour, when you don’t know where it’s going, it is wonderful in its meticulousness and attention to psychology, morality, and private magic,” writes Grantland‘s Wesley Morris. “After an hour, that not knowing where to put these people and ideas forces the movie into clichés to which it’s otherwise superior.”
“A colleague who disliked the film called it an elevated Sundance vehicle, and I understand where he’s coming from,” grants the Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek. “But for me, Trier’s direction—his ability to take each scene down a road you don’t quite expect—makes all the difference.”
Updates, 5/22: “The film’s grim themes and moody tenor are by now familiar elements of Trier’s work,” writes Jordan Cronk, dispatching to Reverse Shot, “and in tone and style Louder Than Bombs feels like a logical extension of his impressive prior film, Oslo, August 31st. But these same characteristics weigh on Trier’s latest, which at times reaches to make near-cosmic associations between each family member’s secret lives (a late reveal of a third affair is almost humorous in its romantic pessimism) and the lingering effects of a horrific event. Trier’s craft, however, remains notable, and Louder Than Bombs features many beautifully composed, deeply felt sequences and a melancholy air expressive of an assured, if troubling, worldview.”
“Disappointingly, despite the more direct points of access, the film lacks the complex characterizations and trenchant observational faculties that so distinguished its predecessors,” finds Giovanni Marchini Camia at the Film Stage. “Although Louder than Bombs endeavors to probe the complexity of the human condition, after almost two hours rehashing truisms and banalities, its grand conclusion about life—helpfully declared by [Gabriel Byrne’s] Gene—is that ‘it’s difficult.'”
“By the time we get to the final frames, some may find the absence of a more daring narrative to result in an underwhelming finale, yet Trier manages to maintain a graceful portrayal of acceptance and healing,” writes Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema.
Cineuropa‘s posted its video interview with Trier (5’41”).
Update, 5/29: The Notebook‘s Daniel Kasman took part in a roundtable discussion with Trier.