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White Noise

Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig star in this ambitious and playful adaptation of Don DeLillo's 80s novel, which has long been considered unfilmable.
By Sarah Ward
December 08, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
December 08, 2022
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UPDATE, December 8, 2022: White Noise streams via Netflix from December 30.

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We're all dying. We're all shopping. We're all prattling relentlessly about our days and routines, and about big ideas and tiny specifics as well. As we cycle through this list over and over, again and again, rinsing and repeating, we're also all clinging to whatever distracts us from our ever-looming demise, our mortality hovering like a black billowing cloud. In White Noise, all of the above is a constant. For the film's second of three chapters, a dark swarm in the sky is literal, too. Adapted from Don DeLillo's 1985 novel of the same name — a book thought unfilmable for the best part of four decades — by Marriage Story writer/director Noah Baumbach, this bold, playful survey of existential malaise via middle-class suburbia and academia overflows with life, death, consumerism and the cacophony of chaos echoing through our every living moment. Oh, and there's a glorious supermarket dance number as one helluva finale, because why not?

"All plots move deathward" protagonist Jack Gladney (Adam Driver, House of Gucci) contends, one of his words of wisdom in the 'Hitler studies' course he's taught for 16 years at College-on-the-Hill. Yes, that early declaration signals the feature's biggest point of fascination — knowing that eternal rest awaits us all, that is — as does White Noise's car crash-filled very first frames. In the latter, Jack's colleague Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle, No Sudden Move) holds court, addressing students about the meaning of and catharsis found in on-screen accidents, plunging into their use of violence and catastrophe as entertainment, and showing clips. In the aforementioned mid-section of the movie, when White Noise turns into a disaster flick thanks to a tanker truck colliding with a train — because its driver was distracted, fittingly — you can bet that Murray's insights and concepts bubble up again.

Before there's a tangible calamity blowing in, life is still mayhem, as Baumbach stresses in White Noise's opening third. The professors natter all at once, with Jack and Murray even joining forces for a rapturous session on Hitler and Elvis Presley's commonalities — Baz Luhrmann's Elvis, this isn't — that's one of the film's tour-de-force scenes. Chatter awaits at home, too, where Jack's fourth wife Babette (Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women) sports important corkscrew hair and mothers a blended brood spanning his kids Heinrich (Sam Nivola, With/In) and Steffie (May Nivola, The Pursuit of Love), her daughter Denise (Raffey Cassidy, Vox Lux), and their shared boy Wilder (debutants Henry and Dean Moore). Recalling Steven Spielberg's fondness for small towns and family dynamics, White Noise is both cosy and intricate in its everyday details (and oh-so-80s). The fact that everyone is always spouting and blasting something, again all at once, speaks volumes; little here, be it good, bad, sudden or expected, can be escaped.

Baumbach keeps close to his source material, so much so that DeLillo's voice lingers in the dialogue; however, the director is no stranger to perceptively unpacking intimate bonds himself. Indeed, each one of his features across more than a quarter-century so far — including breakout flick The Squid and the Whale, quarter-life-crisis gem Frances Ha, the similarly arrested development-centric While We're Young, coming-of-age caper Mistress America and the adult sibling-focused The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) — has done just that. Only White Noise boasts "The Airborne Toxic Event", though, which tests its characters and relationships through apocalyptic horror, a frantic evacuation, and detouring ambitiously and hilariously into madcap National Lampoon's Vacation-esque territory. That ominous feathery plume makes the fear of death physical, as scary movies have for a century-plus. And, it makes it unavoidable, no matter how much the film's motley crew would rather divert their attention anywhere else. Also, it briefly turns it comical in a 'what else are you going to do but laugh?' manner.

How does humanity, en masse and individually, trick ourselves into forgetting that our time alive is finite, fleeting, fickle and fragile — and that it could fade to black at any second? White Noise is that question in anxious filmic form with a satirical and savage bite. Accordingly, Murray waxes lyrical about grabbing groceries, and also about being someone who either kills or dies, while Jack and the teenage Denise start noticing the usually perky Babette's secret pill-popping. The Gladneys' patriarch and matriarch already proclaim how they couldn't live without each other as bedroom talk, but they're really ruminating on what it'll mean when they simply can't live. Buying and medicating your way away from that train of thought, and ignoring warnings and doctors, are all firmly in the movie's sardonically scathing sights. So is seeing how danger, terror and death inevitably bring people together — and, although set in the 80s, working with a novel penned in the 80s, the striking pandemic-era parallels sting (masks, conspiracy theories and all).

In Baumbach's hands, White Noise is anything but unadaptable, but it is jam-packed. The themes, ideas, emotions, neuroses and tones flow as fast as all the talk — itself overflowing with big-thinking yet also screwball dialogue with a zippy rhythm — and then there's the always colour-saturated production design and costuming, the hypnotic choreography of bodies and vehicles, and the dream cast. Both Driver and Gerwig have already shown their sublime talents under Baumbach's guidance before, and both perfect the crucial-but-rare skill of conveying a world of character minutiae via their presence. Driver's size instantly makes him tower over the Gladneys' mania, just not as much as that black cloud, and soar over his college discussions. Gerwig, missed on-screen for six years while directing Lady Bird, Little Women and the upcoming (and Baumbach co-written) Barbie, is the face of soldiering on until you aren't or can't — equally warmly and heartbreakingly so. 

Impressive turns by Cassidy and Sam Nivola as the eldest two of the precocious children stand out, too, and Jodie Turner-Smith (After Yang), André 3000 (High Life) and Lars Eidinger (Irma Vep) also make an imprint in small appearances. Again, there's a lot to White Noise. Again, that's all by design, stems from the page, happily comes with built-in lurches and veers, and a hefty part of the point. (Life is a lot, death is a lot and confronting is a lot, after all.) As Danny Elfman's (Wednesday) score adapts nimbly to the many changes in mood, and cinematographer Lol Crawley (The Humans) helps make everything a spectacle, bearing life's transience keeps proving wildly careening, spiralling, amusing and entertaining. And when the closing credits roll, fancy footwork breaking out to LCD Soundsystem's 'New Body Rhumba' in an infectiously engaging display, a clear message has beamed in through the static: everything in life, like in supermarkets, has an expiration date, but knowing that fact means enjoying what you have while you have it.

Top image: Wilson Webb/NETFLIX © 2022.

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