REVIEW: White Noise [2022]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 136 minutes
    Release Date: November 25th, 2022 (USA)
    Studio: Netflix
    Director(s): Noah Baumbach
    Writer(s): Noah Baumbach / Don DeLillo (novel)

Family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation.

I must commend Noah Baumbach for taking on Don DeLillo‘s White Noise because it is nothing like his other films. Where they are all in some way a projection of his life and that of those around him, this satirical tale of one family’s (in)ability to cope with their impending mortality is on an entirely different tonal level. Because while Baumbach’s worlds are obviously heightened realities delivered through an affected aesthetic lens, the dialogue and interactions coming from the Gladney family have their own unique rhythm akin to fairy tale—albeit darkly warped and surreal. We see it in the opening scene at College on the Hill as the camera weaves through a bunch of parents and students and, especially, at home amongst a sextet of strong personalities.

Quintet might be more apt considering Wilder (the youngest and only child sharing Adam Driver‘s Jack and Greta Gerwig‘s Babbette as biological parents) never utters a word. The family is more prone to forgetting him amongst the noise than worrying about his needs since the other three (Raffey Cassidy‘s Denise is Babbette’s while Sam Nivola‘s Heinrich and May Nivola‘s Steffie are Jack’s) demand so much attention. Denise is desperate to discover why her mother’s memory is failing and whether the pills (Dylar) she’s blatantly taking (despite pretending she’s not) are a cause. Heinrich’s know-it-all never takes a breath and has no qualms with asserting that everything he says is knowledge despite his confidence, not corroboration, proving our only evidence of it. And Steffie just wants to be included.

It’s tough to get noticed amidst the chaos, though. Jack is the nation’s foremost authority on Hitler (and justifiably embarrassed about not knowing a lick of German), after all. He must only enter a room to command respect (Don Cheadle‘s Murray Siskind hopes to wield this fact to his advantage by inviting him into one of his Elvis lectures to—with permission—absorb some attention for himself). People look to Jack for answers to their questions and he has a keen ability to deflect with vagaries so as never to be held accountable for being wrong (while saying just enough for praise if correct). So, when a tragic accident creates a volatile “airborne toxic event” mere miles away, a “We don’t have to worry” quickly assuages Steffie’s fears.

Not for long, of course, considering they do in fact have to worry, but enough to set the stage for how hollow the Gladneys’ (and humanity at-large) penchant for embracing a false sense of security and safety is. Why worry about a potential disaster when you can distract yourself with an early dinner instead? Why listen to the radio (like Heinrich religiously does) if the experts’ predictions are constantly changing in ways that seem purposefully catered to confusing and scaring the masses? DeLillo (and, by extension, Baumbach) brilliantly brings this dynamic to a hilarious high once a police vehicle drives by on a loudspeaker to demand everyone evacuate the town immediately. Babbette and Jack wonder whether his cadence was serious or suggestive. Anything to ignore the words themselves.

The whole feels like a Charlie Kaufman film. So often throughout the first two chapters (there are three), I felt as though Baumbach was intentionally channeling I’m Thinking of Ending Things—in a good way. White Noise is funny, insightful, and downright scary at times for so much of that first two-thirds that it seems almost like the last portion was set-up to fail. Where we got to look at ourselves through the mirror of the Gladneys and their insecurities, fallibilities, and sheer mediocrity via the comfort of a supermarket’s fluorescent lights and discomfort of apocalyptic portents, the lengthy return to “normalcy” attempting to tie everything together punts us from the proceedings to focus on Jack and Babbette as, simply, characters. Sadly, they’re much less effective without metaphor.

There’s still a lot to like about the final act—putting Dylar’s potential side effect of confusing words with objects (saying “There was a hail of bullets” will have a user ducking as though they saw and heard a real hail of bullets) to effect is quite something—but it feels one-dimensional by comparison. The idea of Babbette taking the pills and Jack believing he exists in a utopia (despite already being divorced three times probably proving the opposite to be true) works because of how those facts infer upon the overall nature of DeLillo’s thesis on death. As soon as the film removes that sense of ubiquity by tightening the focus, my interest immediately waned. Because I never actually cared about the Gladneys. They were merely placeholders.

Should Baumbach have done more to make me care at the start? Or should the end have kept more of a distance? I don’t know. It’s probably a small issue that most people won’t care about anyway and it’s not as though the shift in focus ruins how entertaining the opening acts are. It’s more about feeling as if a rousing yet dry tale finished on a whimper rather than the showstopping finale I hoped it was all working towards. Maybe that’s the point and my disappointment is my own fear of uncertainty and desire for drama rearing its head when reality is much less exciting (not that multiple gun wounds aren’t exciting themselves). All that propulsive force becoming an exercise in wheel-spinning just left me deflated.

Regardless, Driver, Gerwig, Cheadle, and the children (Heinrich and Cassidy are standouts with performances straight out of a Wes Anderson movie yet stripped of his trademarked whimsy) elevate every scene with precise dialogue (augmented by wonderful sound design). The art direction is memorable with the mix of colorful brands ripped from a vintage sitcom and drably generic text on white a la High-Rise toeing the line between fantasy and delusion that we all share proving a highlight. And the antics (Jack and Murray’s riveting back-and-forth in class, Bill Camp coming out of nowhere to earn performative applause that’s less about his words than blindly following the herd, and a choreographed end credit sequence set to LCD Soundsystem) are so boldly idiosyncratic that the misses still demand your attention.

[1] WHITE NOISE – (L-R) Greta Gerwig (Babette), May Nivola (Steffie), Adam Driver (Jack), Samuel Nivola (Heinrich) and Raffey Cassidy (Denise). Cr: Wilson Webb/NETFLIX © 2022.
[2] WHITE NOISE – (L-R) Don Cheadle (Murray) and Adam Driver (Jack). Cr: Wilson Webb/NETFLIX © 2022
[3] White Noise. (L to R) Adam Driver as Jack, Greta Gerwig as Babette, and Don Cheadle as Murray in White Noise. Cr. Wilson Webb/Netflix © 2022

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