It's just really, really special to be a cinephile alive in the days of Joachim Trier. Three features in, all three of them genuinely great (the others being Reprise and Oslo, 31 August, one of the very best films of the 2010s), and none of them are especially like the other two, on top of it. And it gets even more impressive: Film No. 3, Louder Than Bombs, is the Norwegian director's first film made outside of his mother tongue (though it is still a Norwegian co-production), set in New England and written entirely in English by Trier and his regular co-writer, Eskil Vogt. You would never know that there was even the potential for a language barrier based on the finished product. Hell, most born-and-bred English-speaking screenwriters would be hard-pressed to come up with something as literate and sophisticated and solemnly novelistic as Trier and Vogt's layered, heavily introspective character drama about the grieving process and the limitations of personal perception. Which don't sound like two themes that naturally go together, but they very much do in this case - just one more way that the script is a real darn impressive thing.

Getting as far as a plot synopsis takes some ironing-out and I would very much hate to rob Louder Than Bombs of even its mildest surprises, so allow me to be somewhat abstract: three men are all mourning the same woman, world-renowned photojournalist Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert), who scoured the world to draw out uniquely striking and damning images of war. Three years ago, she died in a head-on collision with a semi truck late at night, and this has affected each of her male relatives differently. Those being her widow, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), her professor son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), a new father, and her now high-school aged son Conrad (Devin Druid) who, we quickly surmise, was given perhaps a little too much emotional shielding by his father and elder brother. Two things are happening to rip the scab of all three Reed men's wounds: first, a major retrospective of Isabelle's work is about to be staged in New York, and second, as a direct result of this retrospective, Isabelle's colleague Richard Weissman (David Strathairn) is going to write a New York Times tribute to her memory that for all of its intimacy, sincerity, and respectful affection, is also going to bring up some uncomfortable facts that Gene and Jonah have been happy to let slumber.

Solely as a "shake up the ant farm" chamber drama, that gives Louder Than Bombs plenty of fuel to burn, and there's a great deal more to it than that; in fact, the film is effectively running two complete narrative lines in tandem through its entire 109-minute running time. They complement each other nicely: one is a story of how we misremember the loved ones whom we've lost, the other is a story of how we fail to connect with the loved ones who are still with us. I believe I have mentioned that Trier and Vogt are Scandinavian.

Louder Than Bombs is a resolutely unflashy film, which is a very different thing from saying that it's indifferent to style. Just for the surgical use of focus in the film's many deep shots - the favored approach to two-shots here is to drop one of the characters in the background, so as to put us in the position of the foreground character attempting to figure them out - the work that cinematographer Jakob Ihre turns out is inspired and admirable despite its superficial plainness. I would with some real enthusiasm call this a more or less flawlessly shot movie, given its particular set of goals. While the film is enormously talky, and it lays its themes out with somber deliberateness, there's still a huge amount of storytelling that goes on in the composition of frames and the block of action. I would not be at all surprised if the rest of 2016 clocks by without my seeing a single image that puts me aquiver so much as a shot during a sequence of Gene having a typically banal dad-who-can't-connect-to-his-sullen-teenager conversation with Conrad: Gene is in a car outside the park where his son is doing nothing at all, watching as Conrad lies to him, and while there's nothing inherently special about the moment, the execution is superb in every detail. Of composition and lighting: Gene is stuffed up close and is underlit while Conrad is bright and far enough back that we have to strain to see him properly. Of writing: the screenplay trusts that the action will be clear enough in its emotional import that it doesn't have to put a button on things or do anything to clarify it. Of acting; Byrne lets just a teeny tiny note of pleading, whining desperation crawl into his voice, while wearing the most terribly crestfallen expression, while Druid reels of lines in the rote monotone of a depressed teen, before snapping shut with a crisp, curt, "I'm busy" that puts a sudden and nasty end to the moment.

I end with that item on purpose: for all of its admirable qualities, Louder Than Bombs puts a great deal of weight on its cast, in a frankly risky way. A dialogue-heavy film about character relationships that puts Gabriel Byrne and Jesse Eisenberg in its two biggest roles is reckless at best: both of those actors have been good in the past, but they've also both been objectively terrible at least once and are frequently locked into stubborn mediocrity (to be fair, Eisenberg's career low point as the godawful Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman was still in the future when Louder Than Bombs premiered). It's not the least of Trier's successes that he's able to guide both of his stars to such excellent performances: in Byrne's case, probably the single best performance of his career, capturing the frustration of an unsuccessful parent with a resentful child as a profoundly sad thing, while also playing, in one of the film's less effectively-developed subplots, the embarrassed affection of a widower starting to feel feelings again, with Conrad's English teacher Hannah (Amy Ryan, whose impressive streak of roles that give her not remotely enough to do continues apace, though at least she's got more to do here than in e.g. the nothing wife role in Bridge of Spies). Throwing ringers like Huppert and Strathairn - aye, and Ryan, for all that she's overqualified - into the supporting adult roles is a good way to build a bulwark for Byrne and Eisenberg, and the film's use of Druid is inspired: for most of the film, he is allowed to be nothing but a flatlining depiction of depression, which already seems like a canny use of a young actor's natural tendency to closing up, and then when he starts to erupt in the final scenes, it catches us all the more off guard.

The film's best performance, though, and by a fairly extreme margin, is given by Huppert, in a role that frankly doesn't even seem like it properly exists. Isabelle is dead, to begin with: we never see a version of the character who exists outside of some other character's memory of her, or some other character's invented concept of her - and the film's rather crafty argument lies in conflating those two things. At the same time, Isabelle is surely the most important character in the whole movie: every major character but Hannah spends the entirety of their screentime reacting in some way to her life and how they feel about it. Faced with what must have been an astoundingly difficult role, Huppert thrives completely: she not only plays correctly an idea of what a fiercely strong, somewhat unloving woman felt like to the people who tried to work their way around her, she also manages to suggest just a little bit of something that none of the characters maybe picked up on: a deep sorrow whose meaning is hard to pin down (that her career has been hard on her family? that her family has gotten in the way of her career? that she is surrounded by death and devastation every moment of her professional life and can't shake it?) but which reverberates throughout her scenes and the whole movie.

Huppert is also at the center of the smartest, hardest aspect of the entire film: its portrayal of memory, perspective, history, and knowledge as all messed up with each other. You wouldn't think to look at it that it's structured in a particularly weird way, but an enormous percentage of the movie is flashbacks and imagined scenes, and a couple scenes of narration using a deadening, detached third-person perspective to take moments out of the present and put them in some kind of literary past tense. Louder Than Bombs is first and last and always about trying to cope with things that have happened at the expense of things that are happening, and dwelling so much in such obviously fragmentary flashbacks is one of the most visible, immediate way it gets us there. The past is literally always clinging to these characters, ready to break out, but never to provide clarity or knowledge. We, in the God's-eye-view position, can maybe piece together some kind of knowledge, about Isabelle at least if not any of her survivors, but they all linger in their half-formed wisdom. That is the film's tragedy, and what makes it one of the finest family dramas I've seen in a great long while.