Death brings us all together. And societies are formed not only by the fear of that unavoidable outcome, but also by the common ways in which we push those existential thoughts to the side.
In this bold adaptation of a novel that may have been published in the middle of the 1980s, but unquestionably speaks to the issues that continue to dominate our culture in the 2020s, director Noah Baumbach brings together themes of consumerism, conspiracy theories, and collective trauma.
The author, Don DeLillo, could not have foreseen the specific relevance that his story would have to the COVID era when he wrote it. The story is about a family that is uprooted from their already precarious existence by an airborne toxic event. However, the source material for this article is intended to speak to a more widespread sense of trauma and fear—elements that will never go away as long as that nagging Grim Reaper is a part of our lives.
Adam Driver as Jack Gladney, Greta Gerwig as Babbette, Raffey Cassidy as Denise, Sam Nivola as Heinrich, May Nivola as Steffie, Don Cheadle as Murray Siskind, Jodie Turner-Smith as Winnie Richards, André 3000 as Elliot Lasher, Lars Eidinger as Arlo Shell.
Director: Noah Baumbach
Writer (based on the book by): Don DeLillo
Writer: Noah Baumbach
Cinematographer: Lol Crawley
Editor: Matthew Hannam
Composer: Danny Elfman
White Noise Review
During the first hour and a half and a half of the Baumbach adaptation of “White Noise,” these intricate ideas are In spite of this, there is a surprising amount to enjoy here, particularly in regard to the pairing of a writer and a director who aren’t necessarily considered to be good matches for one another. It’s true that life is full of unexpected turns, isn’t it?
In the beginning of the movie “White Noise,” a professor named Murray Siskind, played by Don Cheadle, is heard remarking on how comforting it is to watch car wrecks on film. It’s not a coincidence, just like every other decision made in this script.
Siskind discusses the straightforward nature of the car accident, pointing out how it obliterates both the characters and the plot in favor of something that can be quickly grasped and empathized with. It hints at the middle portion of a movie that will essentially be a disaster movie and will ask viewers to imagine what they would do if they were trapped in the same situation as the protagonists of the film.
This also serves as a setup for another fascinating aspect of “White Noise,” which is a commentary on the catharsis experienced by large groups of people. When we observe other people engaging in the same activity as us, be it watching a car crash in a movie, going to an Elvis concert, or shopping at an A&P grocery store for things we don’t require, we feel a sense of calm and contentment.
Even though he is embarrassed by the fact that he cannot speak German, Professor Jack Gladney (played by Adam Driver), who is considered to be one of the world’s leading experts on Hitler Studies, has a keen understanding of groupthink. As Gladney, Siskind, and their colleague use big words to help get a grip on big problems, the first act—and the film is divided into three parts on screen—could be called a satire of academia.
The film is divided into three parts on screen. Denise (Raffey Cassidy), who suffers from anxiety, and Heinrich (Sam Nivola), who is good at solving problems, are members of the blended family that Jack and his wife Babbette (Greta Gerwig) have created. In addition, there are two more children.
Denise has noticed that Babbette has been forgetting things as of late, and she finds a new prescription bottle for a medication called Dylar. This is a typical American family, and they are going through the motions of life while at the same time trying to push away the questions that have plagued philosophers for eons, such as what it all means and how to stop thinking about when it all ends.
A remark made about how contented they are prompts Babbette and Jack to have a discussion about the order in which they ought to perish, which is one of the best early scenes.
In the first act of “White Noise,” the threat of death is a concern; however, in the second act, which is titled “The Airborne Toxic Event,” this threat becomes more tangible. When a train derails on the outskirts of town, sending hazardous materials into the air, the Gladney family, with the exception of Jack, begins to freak out.
During the time that he is attempting to diffuse the situation, Denise is led to believe that she is already ill, and Henrich is preoccupied with listening to news reports. Soon enough, they’re on the move in a mass evacuation, and Baumbach pulls off one of his most impressive technical achievements: he captures a family on the run from the unknown.
It re-centers the Gladneys back at home, but with death a much more present reality in Jack’s mind. This can be said without giving away everything that happens in the final act. Unfortunately, as the tension builds, “White Noise” loses some of its impact, and this is especially noticeable in a few talky scenes near the end that betray the tone of the first half of the movie.
Yes, the movie always deals with “serious” topics, but things get rough when they take center stage, and the tone has trouble blending satire and marital drama together. For many years, people have infamously referred to DeLillo’s book as being “unfilmable,” and it feels like the book’s conclusion is where that is most apparent.
Fortunately, Baumbach is working with two of his most dependable associates, so they will prevent it from going off the rails. Once again, Driver gives an outstanding performance here, crafting an act that is frequently very funny without relying on stereotypical character beats.
Driver gives a performance that is often very subtle even as everything around him is going broad. There is a version of this character that is pitched to eleven—the awkward academic forced into trying to keep his family alive despite his inferior skill set—but Driver plays the character in a way that is pitched to eleven.
In the beginning of the movie, Gerwig behaves in a peculiar way, but this is understandable given that her character is in the process of becoming somewhat unmoored before the environment around her becomes toxic.
Baumbach has put together a team that is worthy of mention in order to deconstruct this epic of existential dread. “Vox Lux” cinematographer Lol Crawley strikes the ideal balance between realism and parody in his camera work, lending much of the movie an exaggerated appearance that is accentuated by Jess Gonchor’s excellent production design.
It’s not quite reality, but it’s close enough to make its point, and the chaotic sequences of panic in the middle section have the energy of a computer-generated action movie blockbuster.
The A&P in this scene, with its vivid colors and shelves of identical items, is not quite reality. Last but not least, Danny Elfman’s score, which bridges the gap between the film’s three distinctly toned acts, is among the year’s finest.
What exactly does it all signify? Why do we choose to escape our fears by taking pills, shopping for junk, and watching car crashes? The phenomenal A&P dance sequence that concludes “White Noise” lands a key theme in a fascinating way.
The theme is that we may all just be purchasing brightly colored stuff that we don’t need to distract ourselves from reality, but let’s at least try to have fun while we’re doing it.
White Noise: Adam Driver showing off his dad bod
You might not realize you’re watching a dud for the first hour of White Noise, Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel, because it’s so full of his trademark virtues as a film-maker.
Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), a schlubby university professor from the Midwest who specializes in Hitler studies but doesn’t speak a lick of German, is married to Babette (Greta Gerwig), who sports a fizzing Eighties perm to go along with her chattering, forgetful demeanor as she gets their adolescent children ready for school in the morning.
Jack’s colleague, Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), says, “A woman like that doesn’t just happen,” and Jack agrees. The Gladneys have a sweet tradition of reading to each other before bedtime, but only if Jack doesn’t pick a book with any “entered” women. Noting that “we’re not lobbies or elevators,” Babette makes an important distinction.
A messy combover and a dad belly make it hard to believe that Driver is a slob, but as far as marital portraits go, this one is pretty close to the ideal. “It sounds like a boring life,” Jack comments. “I hope it lasts forever,” Babette says.
For sure, we’re in Baumbach country now, with its fast-paced, fractious, slightly neurotic family chatter, both acidic and warm, like that which propelled Marriage Story, While We’re Young, Mistress America, and Frances Ha to such heights.
But the cheerful activity in the Gladney home is abruptly cut short when the television announces that a “airborne toxic event” has occurred and everyone must evacuate to higher ground.
Strangely, the movie doesn’t leave you feeling scared or worried at all. Baumbach comes to realize in the final reel that studying these things is antithetical to experiencing them, and that ambience is as nothing compared to a shot from a loaded gun.
When this happens, the bounds of plausibility for Jack and Babette’s characters are beyond repair. If Driver and Gerwig kept complaining about Coco Pops, I could handle it. But when they started pimping themselves out to drug dealers and loading corpses into cars, I had to draw the line.
It’s an understated admission of defeat that the film’s best moment is its final dance number, which takes place in the brightly lit aisles of a supermarket to the tune of LCD Soundsystem’s New Body Rhumba.