White Noise is a colourful and theatrical drama, with plenty of narrative twists – here’s our review of director Noah Baumbach’s latest.
With White Noise, Noah Baumbach creates a colourful and heightened suburban landscape full of weird and wonderful characters. Adapted from Don DeLillo’s novel, this adaptation is dramatic and darkly funny, while also taking many unexpected turns narratively and stylistically.
The world we’re introduced to is an artificial representation of 80s suburbia that feels almost like a fantasy landscape. The interior sets are full of rainbow colours, especially the college taught at by one of our protagonists – Professor Jack Gladney. In the role, Adam Driver is physically near-unrecognisable, but his performance is incredibly theatrical and memorable. With its characters, Jack included, the film contrasts their sometimes-absurd nature and environment with serious life events and existential fears, and does so to great effect.
White Noise introduces an over-the-top and vivid suburban landscape only to turn it upside down. The Gladney family – comprised of Jack, his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig), and their children/stepchildren are thrown into chaos after a chemical spill – named by the media as an ‘airborne toxic event’ – forces them to evacuate their home. They’re then faced with a prospect they find hard to accept, that a life-threatening event could happen in an ordinary place and to ordinary people like them.
Despite its existential questioning, Baumbach’s movie is often highly amusing, especially when it’s getting us acquainted with the Gladneys and other major characters. An introductory scene sees Don Cheadle’s Professor Murray Siskind trying (ridiculously) to lead a lecture on how cinematic car crashes are an incredibly lighthearted affair, despite any blood and guts that may be involved. Jack’s chosen area of expertise is no less strange – he leads a programme on Hitler Studies (but doesn’t speak a word of German). As if needing to prove himself a true Hitler aficionado, he can often be seen wearing dark glasses that make him appear suitably similar to an Indiana Jones villain. The unusual nature of the characters’ jobs is paired with incredibly over-the-top performances, which are further aided by the nature of the script.
Just like the neighbourhood is a heightened version of suburbia, the dialogue is similarly heightened. Everything feels written to be prose-like. No one speaks the way people do in ordinary conversation, and this allows the cast to take their roles to a very theatrical place. Driver, Gerwig and Cheadle are all excellent where this is concerned. Gerwig’s subtly-unsatisfied housewife Babette is a hurricane of emotions, wearing her heart on her sleeve and clearly expressing whatever she’s feeling in that moment.
Events and conversations are portrayed in a dramatised way, and while I’m unsure if that’s entirely positive it definitely is captivating.
In terms of the story itself, White Noise takes several unexpected turns. It deals with natural disasters, the dynamic of a typical suburban family, fear of death and Babette’s addiction to a drug named Dylar that no medical professional has heard of. Each thread is incredibly different, and you’re never quite sure what to expect next. A lighthearted scene of a family dinner may be followed by a jump scare-filled dream sequence. Baumbach’s film keeps you on your toes, and that’s refreshing and exciting despite the fact that its disparate elements don’t fit together all that well in the end.
As an aside, there’s a brilliantly fun and well choreographed credits sequence set in a supermarket. More of those, please.
White Noise is streaming on Netflix on 30th December, and played at the London Film Festival.
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