Disaster and death and mayhem, oh my! Over the past five years, the American public finds itself consistently confronted by disaster in its many forms. COVID, January 6th, and the climate crisis make it harder than ever to feel in control. Confronting death and chaos does not always help our mental health, making it very easy to push those fears away. Sadly, that does not make our fears stop haunting us. Director and screenwriter Noah Baumbach uses this background to adapt one of the great novels of the 21st century. His new film, White Noise, releases this Friday on Netflix. Based on the novel by Don DeLillo, the extremely odd, yet stylized film, surprises as one of 2022’s best. How far you last with it will be the real question.
A professor and head of Hitler studies at The College on the Hill, Jack (Adam Driver) lives a normal life. He attempts to fulfill his blended family’s needs, along with those of his new wife Babette (Greta Gerwig). As he continues to gain fame by studying one of history’s most brutal dictators, Jack becomes the envy of his coworkers (Don Cheadle). Simultaneously, his step-daughter (Raffey Cassidy) makes Jack aware that Babette secretly uses pills. When a train derails and causes an airborne toxic event, Jack must save his family and what is left of his marriage.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the plot of White Noise feels far more obscure than the previous summary. The story wanders, embracing a highly stylized dialogue that is unlike anything we’ve seen from Baumbach. He begins to shape the entire film around this stylization, which quickly extends to the production design and set dressings. There’s an undercurrent of absurdity in nearly every scene, even as the story attempts to collaesce around the way we attempt to hold our grip on tragedy.
Additionally, the performances from Driver, Gerwig, and Cheadle tend lean into the oddity of the story. Driver’s Jack oozes a self-seriousness while the story asks him to perform downright comical monologues. In the hands of lesser actors, Jack would wither on the vine. However, after seeing 2021’s Annette, no one should ever question Driver’s ability to commit. The zaniness takes over, especially as he attempts to confront new horrors in his life.
Gerwig gets to play aloof, and Baumbach clearly knows how best to extract comedy from her interpretation of Babette. She gets funny one-liners, but its the subtle moments that help White Noise elevate off the page. Cheadle gets to scene steal, and he swallows up every scene he takes over. Cassidy stands out amongst the teen performers, bringing actual heart and emotion into the role. It’s a mostly thankless role, but Cassidy elevates the material to make us invest in her mother.
DeLillo’s original commentary remains intact and frankly takes on a new meaning in 2022. The non-stop noise, reptitious nature of these processes, and the threats that lurk at every turn inspire a new form of apathy. It’s all we can do to mentally make it through a day, and the characters that struggle most in White Noise find themselves at odds with those around them. If everything feels important, how can we balance our lives? How can we priotize family when professional obligations are higher than ever and natural disasters are inevitable? Examining the scale of our power in an infinite universe can be oppressive.
Baumbach’s push to confront death feels timely, especially given the response to a pandemic and attempts to undermine democracy have been met with shrugs. The aforementioned apathy simmers below every scene of White Noise, all while blasting the characters with commercialism as often as possible. The things we are willing to do to feel normal do not make life easier, and our willingness to ignore the bigger problems opens up rifts in our communal and personal relationships. A discussion between Driver and Cheadle wraps the themes of White Noise in a brilliant bow, but the sequence only occurs halfway through the film. Baumbach continues to pelt the audience with new challenges and upsetting ideas, all as Jack attempts to hold his life together. Baumbach does not want us to be Jack, but he wants us to fight for his life like he does.
While using the 1980’s Amblin, nostalgia visuals, Baumbach delivers one of the most musically enjoyable films in his career. LCD Soundsystem delivers one of the best songs of the year, and delivers one of the most enjoyable sequences of the year on the song’s back. James Murphy’s lyrics on “New Body Rhumba” thematically ties the film together, and sends the audience out on a high note. Danny Elfman also slays the score, putting a cherry on top of White Noise‘s musicality. The production team also deserves a heap of praise, as the use of color, beautiful costumes, and outlandish setpieces helps Baumbach convey an important message. The world may be crazy, but at least we have each other. It’s a cheesy, but essential message that’s easy to forget.
There will be many viewers who simply turn off White Noise thanks to its zany nature. However, sticking with the film and exploring its themes results in one of the sneaky thrills of 2022. For Baumbach, it’s a giant swing that challenges him to make a film unlike any in his career. Hopefully he gets more opportunities to branch out from his deeply interpersonal stories, because his eye for spectacle feels