** Warning: contains significant spoilers for White Noise **
Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel, White Noise, was my favorite film of last year. More than that, I strongly suspect that it’s going to be a lasting all-time favorite film for me that I will happily return to repeatedly; But, something I’m discovering is that I seem to be somewhat by myself in that high opinion of the film. Now, I have no problem being the lonely voice trying to reclaim a maligned masterpiece, but I’m especially surprised that I need to play defender in this case, as I genuinely think White Noise is an obvious and straightforwardly great film.
I remember when White Noise was first announced. It was thought to be a likely candidate to be in the mix for all manner of end of year awards, just on the strength of the book’s reputation and Baumbach’s recent success with Marriage Story. After people actually saw the film, though, none of that materialized. It ended up being largely absent from critics’ end of year top 10 lists; And, looking at review aggregator sites, it seems like it received a fairly lukewarm response from critics, and an almost hostile response from general audiences.
Maybe part of the blame for its reception is that it’s a film about death; and not death in the usual heightened movie sense of something like a disaster movie or revenge film, but rather the disquieting and mundane sense of death as something ever looming in our everyday lives. Since this is exactly the kind of thing that people go to movies to escape thinking about, I could see how that might be alienating.
To try and see where things might have gone wrong for the film, I went looking for some more specific complaints by skimming through the negative reviews of the film that I could find, and making myself a little word cloud of whatever terms appeared the most often. Based on that, the most common criticisms seemed to fall into a couple of different groups: first, that the film was seen as pretentious or vacuous, second that it felt detached and ungrounded; and third, that it seemed jumbled and haphazard. Harsh words, but, I can kind of see where each of those observations is coming from. I just happen to think each of those elements is largely intentional, and that they wind up contributing to my affection for the film.
Structurally, White Noise is broken into three acts, along with a small opening prologue and a wonderful final coda that plays out during my favorite closing credits sequence since Inland Empire. The beginning is a short jaunty lecture being delivered to a college class by Don Cheadle’s professor character, Murray Siskind, discussing how he takes car crashes in films to be an example of secular optimism, showing the ever-expanding scope of what human beings can do with human things; and that underneath their seeming violence is a spirit of innocence and fun. Notably, this isn’t how the book opens, so the presumption from Baumbach is that he would like us to keep this in mind with everything we’re about to see, and we can decide for ourselves whether or not underneath the coming violence we’re about to witness, we will find that same spirit of innocence and fun.
The first main section of the film introduces us to the Gladney family. Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) is a professor of Hitler Studies, at The College on the Hill. He lives with his wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), who teaches an adult education course on movement. They each have been married 3 times before, and are raising an eclectic brood of children from those various marriages, along with a young son, Wilder, that is theirs. This first act is mostly a skewering of academia and consumerism, featuring fatuous conversations between Jack, his fellow professors, and his friends Murray; often in the aisles of the local A & P Supermarket. This section of the film culminates in a surreal and bravura scene of the two men simultaneously giving different lectures to the same class, on Elvis and Hitler respectively. I’m vocationally predisposed to enjoy the jabs at academia, and the absurd, yet credible, idea of a college having a world class Hitler studies department amuses me to no end, but what I love most about this whole opening section of the film is actually the Altman-esque way we get to see the Gladney family bounce off one another in their home, especially the playful relationship between husband and wife, Jack and Babette.
Their children are all wonderfully cast, each with their own voice and personality, but the moment I come back to the most is just between Jack and Babette. It’s a conversation between the two of them in bed, where they’re half joking about how they each want to be the one of them to die first, hyperbolically talking about not being able to bear the thought of having to go on living without the other. This exchange especially resonates with me because I know that I have had this exact conversation, in precisely this tone, with my wife. It’s a playful exchange, and sincerely so because that’s the only way to talk about such things, but both of them also know that they are whistling past the graveyard too and that there is real anxiety underneath what they’re saying.
Going back for a moment, the transition between the first and second act is that simultaneous lecture that Jack and Murray are giving. As Jack is building to a crescendo, we start to see his words intercut with a disaster unfolding at the same time on the other side of town. While they are lecturing on Elvis and Hitler, about what those two figures share in the obsession about their lives and deaths, a train carrying a massive amount of hazardous materials is in the midst of derailing and ultimately exploding, due to a collision with a car. This chemical explosion will create a life-threatening airborne toxic event that will lead to a large-scale evacuation of the region. Due to this car crash, Jack and Babette’s fear of death has now become manifest as a literal dark and poisonous cloud looming over their heads.
It’s in this second act that the film makes its first big shift, turning into a peculiar kind of disaster film. The train crash is dramatic, but there is an initial detachment to how Jack and Babette handle it. While their oldest son, Heinrich, is watching the rising plume of smoke at the crash site with a pair of binoculars through their attic window, Jack is actively downplaying the severity of what’s happening. Partly this plays like a parent wanting to put a happy face on bad news, but it also reads like denial on Jack’s part that such a thing could happen in his bucolic college town. It’s not exactly blindness to what could be happening, but a willful reluctance on Jack and Babette’s part to fully reckon with the worsening news, and increasingly frequent sirens, until finally a car with a megaphone drives down their street ordering all homes to be evacuated immediately.
The evacuation itself is odd in contrast to other disaster films. The family piles into the car, and backs over their garbage cans as they quickly pull into the street, like you may have seen in a dozen other movies before, only to immediately settle down into the slow and orderly crawl of cars heading out of town. Rather than being panicked or exhibiting some heroic steely resolve or performing any number of other possible cinematic emotions, what they’re doing is looking to the people in those other cars in order to try and calibrate how scared they're supposed to feel.
In moments the film can truly look like a disaster movie, though. We get one shot of the black cloud at night during the evacuation, dramatically lit by helicopter spotlights and bursts of lightning; a shot that would be right at home in a Roland Emmerich movie, right down to the people slowly getting out of their cars to stare in wonder and awe up at the sky. But nothing more comes of that moment. Everyone just gets back in their cars and starts driving again. Next thing we know, we’re arriving at their assigned evacuation point at a Boy Scout camp, Camp Daffodil for a brief respite. By the very next morning, they suddenly have to evacuate again as the cloud is still coming towards them. There is an actually thrilling sequence where Jack decides to follow some survivalists who drive off into the woods rather than following the rest of the evacuees out of the campsite. There is a high-speed chase through the woods, a chase that briefly entails their family car getting caught and sent floating down a river, only to escape the river by floating close enough to the river bank to gain enough traction to escape. Back on solid ground, they tear through the woods and into a cornfield that ultimately just dumps them out onto the same they would have been evacuating on in the first place, with all the cars that are making their slow and orderly evacuation from camp.
In some ways, the third act is the wildest swing of the film, and possibly what might have been most alienating to some viewers, because we get something of a third mini-movie. After 9 days, the cloud has been dispersed, and everyone can return to their homes, and now the question is how to go about one’s life having survived something like this. The very strangest thing about this part of the film is that this seemingly fantastical disaster actually happened in real life only weeks after the film’s release, near the same part of Ohio where White Noise was filmed, with some of the very same people who played extras in this evacuation sequence having to evacuate their own homes for the same reason. A train derailed carrying large amounts of vinyl chloride that vented into the atmosphere creating an airborne toxic event like in the film, and it was five days before anyone from within a mile of the crash site was allowed to return to their homes.
Something we are starting to see there that resembles what happened in the film is the strangeness of the beginning stages of normalcy reasserting itself in the aftermath, but particularly that kind of disingenuous normalcy that is just pretending everything is fine, or the kind of normalcy that is simply choosing not to think about what has happened or is still happening all around you. What I appreciate about White Noise is the way it captures something of this transition from mundane daily worries, to total catastrophe, and how complicated the pull of normalcy is in any aftermath. Maybe we haven’t all had the experience of fleeing some disaster, but most of us know something of being blindsided by tragedy in some form. There’s a complicated mix between things around you returning to normal whether you’re ready for it or not, your own desire to return to normalcy however impossible that might be, and the inevitable emergence of some new normal. There is never any going backward, but the vacuum created by any disaster or tragedy will be soon filled with something whether we like it or not.
In the third act of the film, Jack, Babette, and the family are trying to get their footing after the disaster. Jack returns to the familiar, preparing for a conference his college is hosting and his regular shopping at the A & P; while Babette, on the other hand, is struggling to find a new normal. We learn more about something teased about Babette in the first act of the film. She has been secretly taking an experimental drug called Dylar, which has been specifically designed to help with anxiety about death. It does this mostly by creating a profound forgetfulness. Babette has now become even more dependent on this drug in the aftermath of the disaster and has had to go to incredible lengths to continue getting it. In the bigger picture, between both Jack and Babette, what we’re seeing is some of the unsatisfying ways humans try to cope with mortality: work, consumerism, pharmaceuticals; and before the film is done, we’ll also take a look at violence and religion as coping mechanisms, too.
Jack will finally learn from Babette about the medication she’s been taking, why she’s been taking it, and what she had to do in order to keep getting it; and Jack will become completely unmoored by this knowledge. Now the film turns into a revenge thriller as Jack is driven to find the man that’s been manipulating Babette. Again though, like with our mini disaster movie, this thriller will also be subverted. In seeking revenge, Jack is looking for one more coping mechanism that will give him the illusion of control. He will track down the man that’s been taking advantage of Babette, and Jack will shoot him with a tiny gun lent to him by Murray during the evacuation. Babette, having followed Jack, will find him just after his having placed the wiped-down gun in the man’s hand. While Jack is distracted, the actually not-yet-dead man will fire the final bullet in the gun, grazing both Jack and Babette. For some actual thrillers, this could be the ending. But, seeing Babette, and maybe realizing that his revenge hasn’t accomplished anything, for him, the man, or Babette, Jack decides he’s not really a killer and that they can’t just leave the shot man to die.
Fortunately for Jack, the man has been taking even higher doses of the drug than what he’s been giving Babette, and he has already forgotten that it was Jack that shot him. Jack and Babette drag him to their car, and drive to get them all help at a nearby emergency room run by an order of nuns. Jack and Babette pound on the door, while Babette calls out “We’re shot!” Literally shot, but the phrasing lets us know that they’re emotionally shot as well, pounding on the door of a building with just the word emergency and a giant neon crucifix over it.
If Jack and Babette were looking for some comfort in religion here, though, they’re out of luck; as the nun they speak with has lost her faith. She can’t offer them Heaven or angels or hope for anything after this life, and can only recommend that they find what comfort they can by believing in one another. While the nun is speaking to them, Jack and Babette reach between their beds and take one another’s hand. On the screen, the subtitled text beneath their held hands is just the words “We pray”. When the nun leaves, Jack and Babette talk, and we can see that they’ve emotionally come full circle to where we met them at the start of the film.
We end on the family, making another trip out to the A & P, maybe heading once more into the breach of distracting consumerism, but at least going happily and together. And, in that moment at the end of a film where the music kicks in and the screen would otherwise go to black, the camera stays with the family as they head into the store, and we watch they, and everyone else in the store, dance to LCD Soundsystem’s “new body rhumba” for the duration of the closing credits. This is the innocence and fun we were promised at the outset of the film.
White Noise is a messy film. It has a strangely chaotic and playful energy throughout, which is striking because of what the film is so overtly about. But, as with a film like Harold and Maude, that odd energy is what lets you linger on the subject without getting overwhelmed. That odd energy is what lets us look at a subject like human mortality and hold onto the idea that there is still room in the days remaining to us for innocence and fun.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th-Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.