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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

White Noise // Film Review

“Side effects can include losing the ability to distinguish words from things, so that if someone said 'speeding bullet,' I would fall to the floor and take cover.”

The novel White Noise, written and published by author Don DeLillo in 1985, should be unadaptable. Its structure is as obtuse as its characters are constructed, being of an early postmodern era in which narratives served only as conduits to philosophy, and not for their storytelling.

The film sees a Professor of Hitler Studies and his wife reckon with the possibility of death and the terror of knowing one of them will die before the other, all while reckoning with “billowing clouds” of disease and black market antidepressants just to get through the day. In other words, if White Noise was to be recreated for the big screen, there is a long list of directors whose filmographies merit consideration before we come to Noah Baumbach, whose work on The Squid and the Whale, Frances-Ha and Marriage Story demonstrates a skillset in one very specific kind of storytelling, namely contemporary domestic dramas. Mumblecore, with a bit more polish. When Baumbach first announced his involvement in the project, assumptions were immediately cast that the plot would see significant adjustments made to fit his house style. For an absurdist black comedy like White Noise, that could be catastrophic.

And so, while the film certainly has its fair share of problems, I’m fascinated to report that it is a laser accurate adaptation of the original text, for better and worse. Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig are mesmerising as a leading couple who speak pretty much exclusively in run-on gibberish and poetic verse, largely due to the contrast with their four perfectly coherent children.

One scene, clearly written to satirise the public response to COVID-19, comes to mind for its blending of the absurdities of DeLillo's world with Baumbach sharp eye for social satire. The children run from room-to-room as new information about an inbound “billowing cloud” drops seemingly by the second, all while Driver insists on “the sad truth” that natural disasters never affect upper-middle class families like them due to “the way society works”. Needless to say, his inevitable 'penny drops' moment is cathartic beyond words. We’ve waited a long time to see the COVID deniers depicted in such a refined project, and it was all worth it for this.

Also of note is Baumbach’s decision to pull from the playbook of Godard in constructing a supermarket pivotal to the film’s world, including an elaborate dance sequence the nature of which shall go unspoiled here. Driver and Gerwig already feel like characters from Tout Va Bien, so why not bring the connection to its natural climax. But Baumbach does not settle for arthouse homages, also choosing to draw from a surprisingly Spielbergian line of action filmmaking. This, unfortunately, is where the film begins to stumble.

The middle act of White Noise is centred on the COVID-paralleling threat of a black, thundering cloud which infects anyone in its path with ‘the Nyodene Derivative’, a chemical that can survive inside the human body for up to thirty years doing unknown levels of damage. This cloud leads to a mass evacuation, resulting in a run of sequences inspired more by disaster movies than kitchen sink dramas. On paper, this is not a problem; genre is there to be played with, and what drama isn’t embellished by a few explosions? Frustratingly, Baumbach’s directorial style simply does not allow for much in the way of innovation here, as car crashes, forest chases and a big CGI spectacle all play as a bit tired. In a film which thrives on its oddities, this middle act suffocates the film, resulting in a third act that has to work all too hard to revive it. One wonders if perhaps Baumbach should’ve toyed with some of his source material after all, purists be damned.

All in all, White Noise is an admirable effort from a director attempting to break from his established brand, and there is plenty to like. Boiled down to its base elements, what we’re really being offered here is a pandemic nightmare turned noir caper, complete with a cast near-exclusively made up of adults losing their minds and monologuing like poets. If you need more convincing, there’s a scene within the first twenty minutes built around Driver’s character having a twisted fever dream about a demon hiding in his bedsheets. This genuinely heartstopping set-piece exists exclusively for the purposes of establishing his general aura of morbid paranoia, and is never addressed again. Like them or not, nobody does goofy quite like the postmodernists, and Baumbach seems to get why that makes for such a good show.

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival 2022.


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