Directed by Noah Baumbach.
Starring Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola, May Nivola, Don Cheadle, Jodie Turner-Smith, André 3000, Lars Eidinger, Barbara Sukowa, Mike Gassaway, Matthew Shear, Francis Jue, Danny Wolohan, J. David Hinze, Logan Fry, Thomas W. Wolf, Bob Gray, Erik Moth, Bill Camp, and Gideon Glick.
Jack Gladney, Professor of Hitler Studies at The College-on-the-Hill, husband of Babette and father of four children/stepchildren, is torn apart by a chemical spill from a railroad car that triggers an Airborne Toxic Event. which forces Jack to confront his greatest fear – his own mortality.
Bed-laying couple Jack and Babbette Gladney (played by Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig) are the focus of Noah Baumbach’s (his second collaboration with Netflix after the hugely emotional history of marriage) adaptation of Don DeLillo’s revered and supposedly unfilmable novel White noise, engage in a conversation about death, hoping they will die first, explaining that life without each other would be unbearable.
The range of participation also depends on the attachment to this topic, especially because of the non-filmable part White noise doesn’t boil down to visual tricks, but the ability to deliberately adopt bizarre and genre-shifting narrative structures (although the middle section would have benefited from a filmmaker more versed in sci-fi and spectacle-evoking).
White noise is divided into three chapters, with the first functioning as something akin to a dark sitcom, then getting caught up in a brush with a pandemic resulting from a truck accident with spilled chemicals, and finally ending in a more dramatic husband and wife exploration inserting through her mysteries and desperation to overcome the fear of death. It’s a rare film that begins with an unwieldy mess, but reigns in the best of those elements in a profound finale that tackles everything from jealousy to anger and consumerism to family and death to a most intriguing take on the purpose of the faith.
However, it is also difficult to work out praise for it White noise beyond that third act, where it feels like Noah Baumbach is completely locked in his wheelhouse, balancing the serious with the absurd (a violent scenario deftly transitions into black comedy). There are elements of horror here (including a fake nightmare sequence that the filmmaker should own up to, even if it’s a bit terrifying) and a pandemic of misinformation through technology that resembles modern life (the film takes place around 1985). .
What’s more intriguing is that the script and novel argue that the biggest source of misinformation comes from family and general misunderstandings, making it somewhat frustrating that the four children (three of whom are Jack’s stepchildren) never really come through as fully fleshed out characters , as they appear smarter and are not afraid to push parents to face certain realities. Adam Driver is also excellent at playing a character who is simultaneously afraid of death but comfortable with pretending nothing bad will ever happen and disrupting the family life he cherishes.
Aside from a suspenseful juxtaposition that breaks up Adolf Hitler and Elvis Presley’s similar relationship with their mothers, which alternates between a drunk driver hauling the toxic chemicals, the various on-screen friendships are between Jack, a college -Professor of Hitler Studies, neither’ I don’t commit to the film and characters with the same verve as more thoughtful spreads.
Don Cheadle plays his fellow teacher Murray Siskind, who dreamed up the study comparison mentioned above, while the presence of college scientist Jodie-Turner Smith is also welcome. They all have philosophical thoughts (Murray suggests that grocery shopping is a form of rebirth, leading to an amusing end credits sequence in which Noah Baumbach tackles yet another genre in this almost indescribable experience), but rarely feel like people who worth caring for (at least not to the same extent as Jack and Babbette).
Speaking of Greta Gerwig’s Babbette, it’s also slightly disappointing that her entire character boils down to hiding a secret in teenage daughter Denise (Raffey Cassidy) suffering her memory loss and discovering mysterious drugs not listed by doctors and medical professionals. Once the intended treatment for that drug comes into play and how it affects those characters, it comes to the fore. White noise finally cuts through all the white noise and ties together thematically.
Then again, this is perhaps the best possible version of White noise, a charged, idiosyncratic experience for which Noah Baumbach has not quite found the right frequency. Not to be corny with words, but most of it is unforgettable noise until then.
Flickering Myth Rating – Movie: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the editor of Flickering Myth Reviews. Check here for new reviews, follow mine Twitter or letterboxd or email me at [email protected]