‘All plots move deathwards,’ intones historian Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) in writer/director Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of the classic novel by Don DeLillo. It’s Baunbach’s first adaptation of a book, and in terms of plots moving deathward, it’s hard to match White Noise. Gladney and his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) both have an intense feeling about the grim reaper’s stealth approach, and White Noise is largely a squeal of anxiety in the face of encroaching mortality; it’s in theatres now and due to drop November 30th 2022 on Netflix.
But White Noise is very much about the way we were in 1984; the local cinema is showing Krull and Jack and his fourth wife Babette find that their young family are fascinated by such real-life horrors as air-show disasters seen through the tv. ‘Family is the cradle of misinformation,’ reflects Gladney, and that cradle is about to be rocked. Gladney enjoys the cut and thrust of academic debate as a professor debating whether Hitler was a mother’s boy with Murray (Don Cheadle), whose pop culture understanding begins and ends with Elvis; all very 1980’s pop culture swagger in the college campus. But Jack Gladney is concerned about the everyday risks that threaten his family, from the pharmaceutical drugs that his skittish wife is taking (no-one has heard of ‘Drylar’) and there’s a huge ‘airborne toxic event’ that causes him to decant his family from their homestead…
Movies about campus intellectuals are traditionally duds, but White Noise has the smarts inherited from DeLillo’s prose. Babette describes a possible infidelity as a ‘capitalist transaction’, and even a simple supermarket is described as ‘full of psychic data.’ Both Driver and Gerwig seize the chance to make something unique and memorable of their fleshed-out oddball couple, both in thrall to the ‘hard and heavy thing’ that is mortality, and Jack’s flickering belief that violence might ‘form of rebirth…maybe you can kill death.’
Although White Noise does rouse itself into violence in the final scenes, it’s never the conventional catharsis that movies often create, so mainstream audiences may find such societal satire an unsatisfactory experience if they’re hoping for cheap, emotive thrills. White Noise is a film full of suspicion and anxiety; it’s reflective of the time period, but also reveals the bleak source and origins of today’s commercially-contrived conspiracy. Gladney is horrified when he recognises the unofficial decal on the uniforms of those who seek to rescue citizens from the disaster and accuses them of ‘using a real event to practice for a simulation’. That innate distrust of authority comes from a genuine fear about the worst of human nature; as Murray notes disdainfully about large gatherings in history ‘they were there to be in a crowd.’ White Noise takes a few liberties with the source novel, but provides an effective, entertaining dramatization of DeLillo’s key themes. It’s the 80’s, things have the potential to get a lot worse, but for Jack, Babette and his family, it’s the end of the world as we know it and they’re feeling just fine, and the final 80’s dance video is a great topper for a thoughtful, intelligent movie that few of the Netflix crowd are likely to play to the end.