“Louder Than Bombs,” the first English-language film by Norwegian director Joachim Trier (“Reprise,” “Oslo, August 31st”), is disarmingly quiet, not unlike the Smiths album that shares its title.
Buried or deflected emotion — conveyed through mordant remarks, pregnant glances, long stretches of silence — can generate more impact than explosive drama. This counts as both an insight and a strategy: Trier’s direction is as restrained and tense as the behavior of his characters, who suffer without making too much noise about it until they seem ready to explode.
They do most of their suffering in a leafy Hudson River town near New York City. Gene (Gabriel Byrne), a schoolteacher and former actor, drives his Volvo to work and tries to communicate with his teenage son, Conrad (Devin Druid). It’s been a few years since the boy’s mother, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a well-known war photographer, died in a car crash, and he has withdrawn into video games and the kind of sullenness that is either perfectly normal or wildly alarming in a male adolescent.
Conrad’s older brother, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), a newly fledged sociology professor with a newborn daughter, arrives to help his father sort out material for a retrospective of Isabelle’s work. The three men, joined by Isabelle in flashbacks that are folded without warning into a mostly linear narrative, do their best to manage their grief and stay out of one another’s way.
Gene is consoled by his secret relationship with Hannah (Amy Ryan), a younger colleague, who is Conrad’s English teacher. Jonah pretends he’s not freaked out by fatherhood. Conrad develops a crush on a cheerleader named Melanie (Ruby Jerins), the kind of girl who would never look twice at a diffident, nerdy kid like him.
Or maybe she would. Trier, who wrote the screenplay with Eskil Vogt, mines the narrative with small surprises and reversals. He allows expectations to build and then gently corrects the assumptions on which they rest. Grief is difficult, people are complicated, and family intimacy can be clouded by secrets and unstated resentments. Jonah and Gene know that Isabelle’s death was a suicide, and they worry about what would happen if Conrad found out.
It is possible to admire the craft and sensitivity of “Louder Than Bombs” without quite believing it. The characters are so carefully drawn that they can feel smaller than life, and the dramatic space they inhabit has a curiously abstract feeling.
The kind of fine-grained realism that Trier is attempting — and that he succeeded in creating in his earlier features — depends on a density of implication. You need to be able to imagine the life of any given character extending beyond the frame, and to perceive the contours of social and domestic life in which the ensemble is embedded.
That intangible sense of continuity, of weight, is missing here, so that you are always aware of the faintly humming machinery of the script, and of the willed subtlety of the performances. Byrne and Eisenberg are impeccable, but they seem more hemmed in than liberated by their craft, which is to say that Gene and Jonah are beautifully rendered ciphers.
Isabelle, meanwhile, is an intriguing ghost, animated by Huppert with her usual fierce precision. It is Druid, though, who temporarily rescues the film from its own carefulness, piercing its bubble of high-minded complacency with his slow-burning anger and deadpan humor.
A late sequence involving an encounter with Melanie and a high school drinking party is the one part of the film that breathes with a sense of freedom and spontaneity. You are aware of Conrad’s curiosity, and you also share it. He is a cautious rebel, in revolt partly against the narrow fatalism of the film he inhabits.
(At the Tivoli.)
“Louder Than Bombs”
Rated R. Time: 1:49