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'White Noise' Review

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December 12, 2022
Hunter Friesen
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What do Hitler, car crashes, Elvis, the fear of death, airborne toxic events, supermarkets, and the existence of an afterlife all have in common? Well, you’ll have to watch White Noise to fully answer that question. Except, I’ve seen White Noise, and I’m still very unsure of what the connection between all those things was. But in my endless confusion, I was still morbidly interested in what was going on, and how it would all come together.

Things start simply (well, as simple as this story can be) with the birth of a new school year at College on the Hill, a smaller-sized intellectual institution for the betterment of its Ohio natives. One of its all-stars is Professor Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), who has pioneered the field of Hitler Studies, all despite him being physically incapable of speaking German. Jack’s lectures are more akin to rock concerts than your typical educational exercises, with his students hanging on to his every precisely choreographed line reading and body movement.

While his studies are almost exclusively international, Jack’s family is your typical American one. He and his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) are each other’s fourth spouse, with their kids being a mixture of past and current relationships. The all-knowing Heinrich and inquisitive Steffie come from Jack’s previous marriages, persistent Denise is from Babbette’s past, and the youngest (and seemingly mute) Wilder is Jack and Babbette’s. This blended group hustle and bustle through their days, with maybe an extra ounce of existentialism, illustrated when Jack and Babbette playfully compete for who would be the saddest if the other partner were to die.

Act two is when things literally go off the rails as a train full of toxic chemicals collides with a gasoline truck, exploding into a chemically-laced cloud of deadly proportions. The family is forced to evacuate their home, colliding with the rest of the town as they all try to outrun this new mysterious threat. 

The appearance of masks and quarantining may send shivers down the spines of a few too many audience members not yet over the ordeal of the COVID-19 pandemic, but writer/director Noah Baumbach grazes over much of that with a playful tone. The scenes of pandemonium are some of the director’s most accomplished technical work. His widescreen camera sways back and forth, capturing most of the action in long takes. With a reported budget of $80-100 million, almost more than double the sum of all of Baumbach’s previous films, the scale to which all of this occurs is quite astonishing, especially for a filmmaker who has always made complicated movies with such simple settings.

White Noise is by far Baumbach’s most complicated film, as the pseudo-intellectual dialogue from Don DeLillo’s “unfilmable” novel flows like a waterpark on the fourth of July. Multiple conversations overlap each other Robert Altman style, with some moving so fast that you don’t have time to catch up before you’re shuttled off to something else. After a while, you kind of just want to tune it all out and treat it as… white noise.

A reasonable explanation for such a large budget may have something to do with the cast. As we all know, Adam Driver's cost has increased considerably with his bevy of critical and commercial success. Even with all the filmmakers he’s explored over the years, including outstanding turns in Leos Carax’s Annette and Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel last year, Driver has always found a home with Baumbach. White Noise marks their fifth collaboration and possibly their most humorous, even if they aren’t trying to be that funny. Completing this trio is Gerwig, wife and regular co-writer with Baumbach, who goes for something a little more heightened.

There’s a lot to chew on within White Noise, with not much time to savor it. Baumbach has created the least accessible film, all while flexing his filmmaking muscles to their fullest potential. Second and third, and possibly fourth, rewatches will be required to take it all in. Luckily, that’s a task I’m more than game for and will be easy to execute because of the film’s release on Netflix.

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