Noah Baumbach’s latest is the first time he’s leaned into a text full of metaphor and symbolic imagery, but it may prove that I prefer when he dabbles in human drama. That’s not to say that White Noise doesn’t demonstrate that there’s a well-intended technical wizard behind it. Far from it, Baumbach is no amateur, but it becomes apparent throughout the film that he may have bit more than he can chew. He takes a 326-page book and stuffs it into his two-hour adaptation of Don DeLillo’s post-modern opus which was long considered unfit for the silver screen. The story takes the viewer into a bizarre world that gets some getting used to. Once you get used to it though it starts to show where its ideas and heart lie, but it takes a lot to get there and its messy build up leads to mixed pay off.
The story of White Noise starts with the Gladney clan, a seemingly average nuclear family living in a peaceful college town. The lead of the film is the father Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) a professor of Hitler studies at College-on-the-hill, a program he pioneered to study how a man makes himself into a centrifuge of power. (Hitler is clearly an example of this as he became the central figure of a gathering where the idea of death was prominent, it separates him from the leaders who pronounced life like musicians, politicians, and civil rights leaders.) The weird thing about this character is that death is on their mind more than life. This is even more pronounced after a cloud of toxic chemicals starts to come towards the town where Jack and his family reside. For Jack the threat of death is even more apparent after he’s exposed to the toxic rain, yet he never feels sick nor is there any medical concerns when he comes to see his doctor. Making us think that this threat of death is a lot more extensities then first meets the eye. Jack’s wife Babette faces a similar predicament as she starts taking a new drug to deal with an impending ailment that no one else in the family knows. A mystery that runs throughout most of the story and the truth behind it reveals what the movie is about.
There’s a lot to appreciate regardless of my critiques of the film. Baumbach’s attempt to make an interpretation of DeLillo’s absurdist and metaphorical world is certainly interesting. The movie guided me from thinking it was about facing your own mortality, to the importance of family to the engrossment we experience in consumerism all in one act. What allows the viewer to engage with the film regardless of content is the excellent production. Lol Crawley has been showing himself to be one of the best cinematographers working today and is severely underrated in his ability to execute a director’s vision as he has with all his notable films. He’s a humble visionary who lets his personal style remain subtle. His work on this film, The Humans, The Devil All the Time and Vox Lux are all beautiful but have lacked the critical and commercial acclaim that launches a DP into the stratosphere. I don’t think this film will be that breakthrough, but I continue to be interested in what he’s working on. I hope one of those films will make him a household name, he deserves it.
Someone who probably won’t get the awards recognition he deserves but doesn’t need the profile boost is Danny Elfman who composes what might be my favourite score of his. His work here blends his own signature use of strings into a synth melody that have heavy use of bass. The result is a score that separates itself by combining the two in a way that reminds me of the work of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross but clearly fits with Danny’s style and the tone of the film. That’s to say it’s a lot more fun and lighthearted than Reznor and Ross’s collaborations with Fincher on Gone Girl and The Social Network
The adaptation work here on point. The way this film moves makes me think its very faithful to the text, for better or worse. This faithfulness to the text comes out in the excellent lead performances from Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig with Driver proving his comedic chops might be wasted in his more serious characters even with how much acclaim and financial success he’s helped those films garner. Driver’s performance is consistent even as the genre seems to change before our eyes and his intonation keeps us grounded in the story and the character. Gerwig almost accomplishes the opposite by keeping the same tone as Driver but in a much more empathetic and melancholic manner. Her emotions help us grasp some of the empathy Baumbach goes for even in a world that’s leans into the absurd. The rest of the cast are also stellar with the family of the Gladney’s all handling the academic parley very well. The oldest son Heinrich does a very good job as first-time feature actor Sam Nivola commands the screen in a few demanding speeches. Raffey Cassidy as the oldest daughter Denise also works very well with Driver in some of the most dramatic scenes bringing a sense of awkwardness and weight to their father-step daughter relationship.
Much of the movie is built on the world Baumbach creates. It’s a world not too different than our own. Its set in the 80s so some of those nostalgic staples remain. Retro Pepsi, period cars, apple jacks’ cereal and boxed kraft dinner all give us a sense of normalcy. But what really makes this world unique is these characters. Their mind always seems to be on grander and greater things then what is in front of them. It’s like they’re all in college seminar discussing philosophical and worldly ideas no matter how young they might be. The opening scenes see the Gladney family constantly talk over one another as they prepare for the morning. Its moments like these where you get the sense of an artist making purposeful filmmaking choices like Baumbach is, but the meaning isn’t aptly available to the viewer. Stories like these are often told this way so the director guides us into a dialogue in our own head with the film’s ideas. It’s opposite of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet in that you are supposed to think about it instead feeling it. This approach works for more abstract philosophical work from the likes of Malick, Kaufman and Kubrick who show imagery, sound, and bits of story more as a vehicle to delve into the artistic ideas they present. Baumbach’s aim seems to be in that direction but the nature of the novel being adapted demands these ideas are veiled in a complex world and story. A story which feels too perplexing in its characters personalities and quirks to truly feel and experience what these go through. The story seems to demand an understanding of the setting the film presents but that takes many scenes and some revealing dialogue to catch up on and by that time too much of the movie is already gone. The film and the novel don’t seem interested in any form of exposition but also cannot go into the realm of poetic filmmaking without becoming an entirely different product. As a result, the story seems to meddle in melodrama for parts of its runtime. A melodrama which opens the chance to present thought provoking imagery and character actions even if they don’t make the most sense at face value.
On one level it seems to be a study of the nuclear family or how that’s not possible. Jack and Babette’s oldest daughter Denise (Raffey Cassidy) comes from Babette’s second marriage and becomes the center of the conflict between Jack and Babette when she reveals to Jack that Babette has been taking these mysterious pills. The answer leads them down a spiraling journey towards the third act, but the film is mostly concerned primarily with how this family reacts to the toxic cloud event during the first and second act. The entire town evacuates despite the lack of evidence of the harm it causes but people believe its threatening considering its beautifully frightening appearance. This causes the evacuated townspeople to question if they’re being evacuated for a legitimate reason and they try to puzzle out the real nature of this toxic cloud.
The film has a lot of different themes and ideas which aren’t explicit to the viewer and while it may require deeper analysis there seem to be some apparent ones. One of the themes is a fear of incompletion which we explore through Jack. During his time studying the vilest and arguably accomplished man to ever live Jack wonders if what he’s doing with his life make him worthy to live in the face of impending death. He’s forced to consider what choices really matter and how to best handle his life with his wife and 4 children/stepchildren. The film also seems to take minor jabs at capitalism and the state of consumerism fueled by its insertion of debate over what medicines to use, what food is the best and judging people’s intellect or rationality through the type of car they drive. Other parts of the film look at relationships. The central couple Jack and Babette have an intimate discussion about how Jack couldn’t live without her and looks at the excitement that’s possible between a devoted couple. Despite moments where it embraces the idea of connection and love its overshadowed by the idea of déjà vu, that life might be just doing the same things over and over just like how Jack and Babette seem to have fallen in love and gotten married had a kid several times each. The toxic cloud is said to cause déjà vu and after its appearance this idea is incorporated multiple times with systematic use of Chekov’s gun. Baumbach drops a lot of unimportant facts about the story for seemingly no reason only to bring them up again later. But still, they don’t seem to have an apparent reason. It’s a film, like a novel in English class that probably requires a lot of reading and analysis to really try to appreciate. I cannot imagine Baumbach claimed to understand the novel on a first read but it intrigued him and after studying it he found its personal meaning for him and figured he could make a cinematic piece out of it for those who would rather study images. The problem being that allowing for interpretation in film to take place often requires precise visual storytelling one that the novel simply doesn’t provide ample opportunity for. So Baumbach as much as he might aspire to achieve a similar visually poetic creation akin to the work of Kubrick and Tarkovsky, there really seems to be too much noise in the story and the visuals used to tell it.
White Noise deserved to be made. It’s easy to recognize this as a film that will be special, Netflix likely may stop giving generous budgets to these acclaimed auteurs. Passion projects like White Noise may continue to disappear which is a sad thing. Despite its lack of unanimous critical praise, personal blockbuster endeavours like White Noise and AGI’s Bardo are a good thing for cinema. This past year more of them have come out with mixed results. They prove to be hard films to enjoy even if there is technical mastery on display and White Noise is not an exception. There’s certainly a lot to admire in the direction but the way the film’s delivered does beg for more time to be taken to try and understand the world of the story before understanding what it trying to tell us. As it is the story doesn’t feel like one that can pull us towards where Baumbach wants us emotionally or intellectually. The ideas feel swallowed up by the meandering plot. This is certainly in part because of the film’s source material but perhaps there is some truth to the idea of unadaptable books. Baumbach is a director who deserves to take a chance on a film he thinks will really make people think but something about it really makes that hard. A second watch might certainly clear some things up but the emotional and intellectual effort needed to connect to this film seem too much when there are so many other films begging to have their stories move you emotionally and intellectually, White Noise struggles to achieve either.
White Noise is now available in theatres and will stream on Netflix on December 30th, 2022.