White Noise

13/12/22

The Cameo, Edinburgh

Noah Baumbach’s latest film – based on the 1985 novel by Dom Delillo – is mostly about death: humanity’s fear of it, the inevitability of it and the final irrefutable truth that one day it comes to us all. If this makes White Noise sound about as much fun as a car crash at a funeral, don’t be misled. It’s a fascinating film, by turns absurdly funny, deeply puzzling and profoundly worrying. If, ultimately, it attempts to bite off a little more than it can chew, it’s nonetheless an ambitious and bravely experimental slice of filmmaking.

We’re somewhere in the American midwest where Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) is ‘Professor of Hitler Studies’ at the prestigious ‘College on the Hill’, where he’s fond of waxing lyrical about the rise of the Nazis without, it seems, any inkling of how distressing a subject it actually is. He’s also hiding the embarrassing fact that he can’t speak a word of German. Jack enjoys an adversarial friendship with another lecturer, Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), who specialises in two main subjects, Elvis and er… car crashes. A scene where the two men attempt to engage in a kind of intellectual battle of wits in front of a spellbound class is a particular highlight.

Jack lives with his wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), and their extended family. Both have had previous marriages and the gaggle of kids who live with them are all better informed than either of their parents. The family lives in a bubble of domestic bliss, interspersed with regular trips to a gigantic, day-glo supermarket, which seems to hold for them the importance of a church. But not everything is quite as cosy as it seems. What are those pills that Babette is secretly taking? And why, when challenged, does she deny their very existence?

Matters take a dramatic turn for the worse when a freight train laden with dangerous chemicals collides with an articulated lorry, carrying something equally nasty. The result in an ‘airborne toxic event’ which sends clouds of deadly fumes into the sky. The Gladney family – and just about everybody else in the vicinity – vacate their home in a desperate attempt to escape. But what exactly are they fleeing from? And what’s the prognosis if you’re exposed to those ‘deadly’ clouds? Nobody seems to know.

White Noise offers as many questions as it does answers. If not everything we’re offered here quite comes off, much of it works brilliantly. Baumbach’s vision of suburban America is packed full of surprises, from doctors who clearly don’t care about the welfare of their patients to a Mother Superior who rubbishes the idea of heaven and angels. There are perfectly judged performances from Driver and Gerwig (particularly the latter who plays her role as if in a permanent drug daze) and Lol Crawley’s cinematography gives everything an unearthly sheen.

In the film’s final third, Jack finds himself driven to seek out the person responsible for Babette’s addiction, but even that doesn’t follow the lines you’d generally expect to encounter in such a narrative. It’s here that the film begins to feel a little too unhinged, though the enterprise is rescued by a delightful end-credit sequence.

It’s an ingenious device that keeps me glued to my seat until the screen finally fades to black.  

3. 8 stars

Philip Caveney

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