The maternal relationships in Louder Than Bombs are obviously broken by death, but it's not like the paternal ones are doing much better. As Jonah spends more time with his father and brother, away from his newborn and wife, his priorities are made increasingly clear. He and Gene still have plenty of unresolved anger around Isabelle's death, such that she was confiding in her son about the problems in her marriage and he doubts the suicide narrative that Gene is pushing. The most fraught is between Gene and Conrad, which is essentially in a permanent state of defcon 2. The eternally patient Gene is unable to break through to his son, to the point where an attempt to bond with him through an online RPG only results in his character being immediately slain by Conrad's, such that Conrad's antipathy can sniff out a digital representation of his father.
Jonah's presence provides a necessary buffer and offers an example of relationships that are working in this world. The fraternal back-and-forth between Jonah and Conrad, separated by many years, is a sweet relief to the otherwise painful interactions. Conrad is able to open up with his brother even as Jonah can't help but laugh at some of his eccentricities. In a recognizable, back-handed compliment, Jonah calls his brother's stream of consciousness journal weird, but impressive, a fair critique that Conrad respects. Jonah tries to help his little brother with girls, offering what advice he can about staying in his league and to be wary of the popular girls who will sell him out for the lulz. For Gene's part, he's been carrying on a secret relationship with one of Conrad's teachers, played by the always-welcome Amy Ryan. Their courtship serves as another respite from the more acerbic aspects of Louder Than Bombs. Gene's self-doubt, created by his age and being out of the dating game for so long, is adorable, their rapport is believable, and Ryan crafts a complete character with her own desires apart from Gene's. No matter the level of intensity, Trier and his cast create relationship after relationship that crackles with life.
Each of the six main cast members put in excellent work. This is a true group effort and an actor's showcase, with no one rising above the other. Byrne's resigned but genial mien is warm and lovely, and he plays his reaction to Conrad's dismissiveness so well that his hurt becomes the viewer's. Ryan is playing in the same field as Byrne, with the approachability befitting a teacher and a dignity that is ever-present. Eisenberg shines brightest in his scenes with Druid, where he is swallowing his first reaction to better craft a more supportive one. Straitharn's character has the least screentime but makes the most of it with a long monologue about how difficult it is to readjust to home life after being in an overseas warzone for months, overlaid with Isabelle struggling to be at peace. Druid will likely see the greatest advancement from this role, as he's the least known of the cast, and paired with his very similar portrayal of a young Louis CK on Louis' TV show, that advancement would be warranted. Lastly, Huppert, whose 2016 has been remarkable, is supremely watchable as the ultra-competent war photographer approaching retirement and wondering if all that time away from her family was worth it.
Trier stitches it all together beautifully. The result is a film that is mostly a series of conversations, but is somehow thrilling in how the characters react to each other. Louder Than Bombs gradually accumulates power, ramping up equally towards shocking outbursts and barely audible moments of rapprochement. With its stellar cast and Trier at the tiller, the film doesn't contain a single false note, rewarding the viewer with an honest and tender experience. A-