Starring: Adam Driver (House of Gucci), Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha), Don Cheadle (Iron Man 3), Raffey Cassidy (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), André Benjamin (High Life), Jodie Turner-Smith (Queen & Slim)
Writer/Director: Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story)
Runtime: 2 hours 16 minutes
Release Date: 25th November (US [limited]), 30th December (Netflix)
Synopsis: Eccentric college professor Jack Gladney and his absent-minded wife Babette both have an irrational fear of death, which is put to the test by an airborne toxic event afflicting their town, and a mysterious drug Babette is taking unbenownst to her husband.
When you say the name “Noah Baumbach” to a film lover, your mind is probably going to conjure up a quirky dramedy filled with awkward situations, extremely flawed and relatable characters, and the presence of Ben Stiller and/or Adam Driver and/or Greta Gerwig. White Noise, however, is a different beast in a lot of ways. It’s the first adapatation he’s ever written and directed after a career of original stories (not counting co-writing credits on the likes of Fantastic Mr. Fox and Madagascar 3), and it stretches far outside his usual comfort zone of grounded New York angst and into the heightened satirical mind of Cosmopolis author Don DeLillo. The result is an idiosyncratic hodgepodge of genres and ideas that shouldn’t work together or even make sense but somehow, whether due to its uniqueness or just sheer dumb luck, it absolutely slaps!
Set in a fictional college town in Ronald Reagan’s America, White Noise engages in a stream-of-conscience narrative that throws out all traditional notions of pacing, structure and tone; by all accounts, that actually makes it a pretty accurate translation of a novel many considered unfilmable. The story is still neatly split into three chapters, but rather than gradually escalating over the story and reaching its crescendo at the climax, it suddenly ramps up at the start of the second act into a completely different narrative. This thread is then almost entirely forgotten about in the third, picking up where it left off in the beginning before reaching a comparably lower-stakes finale.
Despite this seemingly backwards approach, what ultimately holds together the whole enterprise is a consistent thematic throughline; namely, humanity’s fasincation with, and collective fear of, the inevitability of death. This thread runs through every facet of the film, from Murray Siskind’s (Cheadle) opening lecture about the pleasure and beauty of movie car crashes, to its final moments where the cost of trying to overcome that fear is laid bare. This is on top of the story’s satire of pretentious academia and Reagan-era Americana, all of which feel all too familiar in a post-Trump world. It’s a complicated collage of concepts that a more general audience is probably going to have a hard time unpacking, but for those willing to dig and see beyond its idiosyncracies will find a singular piece of cinema that walks like an Amblin production and yet quacks like the works of Paul Verhoeven and Yorgos Lanthimos.
In spite of his distinct presence, Adam Driver has proved himself a malleable chameleon of an actor who can effortlessly slip into many different skins. His performance as Jack Gladney here is certainly yet another feather in his cap, portraying this neurotic yet boisterously self-important college professor with a smug confidence entirely his own. A scene where he and Cheadle have a lecture-off where they juxtapose the lives of Adolf Hitler and Elvis Presley is a hilarious and surreal bit of acting you won’t soon forget, whilst his need to debate and initial hesitancy to recognise the seriousness of the toxic event’s threat feels all too familiar in a world filled with “rational sceptics”. Greta Gerwig plays a more familiar role for her as Driver’s ditzy yet internally struggling wife Babette, and whilst she gets far less focus than her co-star she still gets enough moments to shine and avoid being overshadowed.
Closely following the brilliance of Driver’s work is Don Cheadle as Siskind, who shares Gladney’s eccentric tendencies but with a more optimistic and slightly unsettling energy; he just always seems so excited about some pretty morbid subjects. There’s also some really strong child performances from Driver and Gerwig’s children, including Raffey Cassidy and siblings Sam & May Nivola (the children of Alessandro Nivola and Emily Mortimer), and some small but memorable roles for the likes of André Benjamin (watch out for his GIF-able cookie dance), Jodie Turner-Smith and Saturday Night Live‘s Chloe Fineman.
The aesthetic presentation of White Noise feels just as schizophrenic as its tonal make-up, but they’re all handled with impeccable skill. Each act has a unifying overall feel, but every scene within them has a style and energy all its own. It begins with this seemingly idyllic depiction of the town of Blacksmith that could be best described as “if Norman Rockwell designed Stranger Things“, which seems even more apt in the second chapter and it takes on an scope more akin to the spectacle and freneticism of classic Spielbarg and Jordan Peele’s Nope, and then the final third is more a riff on the Davids Fincher and Cronenberg. Its depiction of the 1980s feels like a satire in and of itself of the decade’s superficial depcitions in modern media, and the slight unrealness of it only adds to the humour of the film. Tying the whole thing together, and quite possibly the strongest element of the entire production, is Danny Elfman’s wonderful score. Considering his own back catalogue is as eclectic as the film itself, he’s a perfect fit for the project and his music segues perfectly between its various mood swings. From grand and operatic during the moments of awe, to frenetic and tense in its bursts of action, and foreboding and eerie during its solemn conclusion, it might just rank up there with Elfman’s best work to date.
White Noise at first seems like the cinematic equivalent of its own title: a wavering mess of visuals and noise with seemingly no pattern or meaning. However, if you can simply look past the static and see the many moving parts underneath, you’ll realise it’s actually a gorgeous tapestry. It’s one made of random scraps of cloth that look like they’ve been stitched together with no plan, but it all comes together in the end. It reminded me of a lot of different films throughout its many phases, but by the end I realised where I had once experience this kind of eclectic and somewhat baffling cinema that felt no need to explain itself: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. By the time the film reached its unforgettable end credits sequence, I was convinced Baumbach must have been inspired by this cult classic (especially considering The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which he co-wrote with Wes Anderson, ends with a blatant tribute to Banzai). In the end, it’s a film I cannot blame anyone from coming out of and feeling tricked or cheated, but if you go in with the right mindset or are simply willing to give anything a chance, it’s absolutely an experience you have to at least taste.
FINAL VERDICT: 9/10
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