- Director: Noah Baumbach
- Writers: Noah Baumbach
- Starring: Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Raffey Cassidy, Andre Benjamin, Jodie Turner-Smith, Don Cheadle, Lars Eidinger
Many films have been made throughout the years about the American Dream, but what about the American Nightmare? Noah Baumbach’s latest, White Noise, is a film that’s obsessed with impending doom at nearly every minute, filtered through the lens of the American condition. It’s the first time he’s working from previously-available material, adapted from Don DeLillo’s novel – long thought to be unadaptable – and it’s Baumbach’s most ambitious project to date. It’s also a thrilling, often messy film that exists on its own wavelength, and is liable to lose casual viewers because of it, but is no less enticing.
Baumbach’s last film, 2019’s Marriage Story, was his best film and, coincidentally, his most accessible, garnering 6 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. For White Noise he reunites with his familiar players, including Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig. Driver plays Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies at the local college (yes, really) and Gerwig is Babette, an aloof but supportive wife who goes through her own uniquely American existential crisis in the early 1980s. The film is divided into three separate, distinct, sections. In the first, Baumbach establishes the Gladney’s personal and professional environments: they’re surrounded by a cadre of children of varying ages and parentage (both Jack and Babette are each other’s fourth marriage), who contribute to the film’s thesis in their own ways.
Babette constantly worries about death – both her own and Jack’s – and begins taking a mysterious drug called Dylar. That worry essentially manifests in the second act when a freight train carrying toxic chemicals crashes nearby and all of the town’s residents must evacuate and quarantine. Throughout the film, Baumbach evokes visual touches of America’s greatest filmmakers. Virtually any time the family is together, the dialogue is layered over one another, a hallmark of Robert Altman. The entire escape from the town and the quarantine later easily calls to mind Spielberg films like Jurassic Park and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There’s even a few creepy scenes reminiscent of John Carpenter’s filmography. But through it all, White Noise still manages to feel like a Baumbach film, with his dry wit and insightful dialogue.
The “airborne toxic event” provides the most exciting moments in the film, when Baumbach really hones in his messaging about Americans and our reactions to the unexplainable, and our inability to take things at face value. Naturally, the back half of the film slows down considerably, as it focuses on the mystery of Dylar and Babette’s confounding mental health. It’s not that the end of the film is less successful or less interesting, but it’s certainly less propulsive. Without the thrilling set pieces and uncertainty that a cloud of toxic materials brings, the film swerves into a marital drama – something Baumbach knows a thing or two about – between Driver and Gerwig. It’s here where both actors thrive, laying out their malaise and dread about the future in nuanced, interesting ways.
It’s always exciting to see what a filmmaker does with the creative freedom afforded to them after a popular hit, which is why White Noise is an intriguing entry for Noah Baumbach. The creative vision on display is mesmerizing, both visually and textually – a word must be said about Jess Gonchor’s distinctive production design, which showcases the brand-obsessed mindset of the time period at nearly every opportunity. Baumbach/DeLillo’s pointedly writerly dialogue may inspire viewers to bail early on (Babette casually drops a line like “it’s the over-closeness, the noise and the heat of being” while shopping at the supermarket), but if you can allow the film to carry you along on its hyper-specific wavelength, you’ll find one of the most unique films of the year.
White Noise will screen in theaters on December 9 and will be available to stream on Netflix on December 30.
- White Noise premiered to mediocre fanfare at the fall film festivals, and it’s been swallowed up by bigger, more palatable titles. As bold as the film is, it will need serious precursor support if it stands any chance at the Oscars. A Golden Globe nomination in the Best Musical/Comedy category could be what it needs, but seems unlikely.