“To become a crowd is to keep out death. To break off from the crowd is to risk death as an individual, to face dying alone. Crowds came for this reason above all others. They were there to be a crowd.”
Director Noah Baumbach’s new film White Noise, adapted from Don DeLillo’s famous novel, makes a point of sneaking in this verbatim quote from the book. It’s a point of entry to the story’s primary interest: the fear of death, and the many ways in which we mortals suppress that fear, deliberately or otherwise.
The crazy part is that White Noise is a comedy. And a good one, too! The film’s real achievement is conjuring the fundamental horror of mortality while celebrating the absurdity of worrying about it in the first place.
Set in 1984, White Noise follows the fortunes of college-town family the Gladneys. Jack (Adam Driver) is a professor at the local university. Babbette (Greta Gerwig) is a busy homemaker who seems to be sneaking pills. The four kids are smart and funny, and there’s clearly a lot of love in the house.
The action really begins when a train collision just outside of town sends a plume of toxic gas into the bright American day. Baumbach gives us our first look at the “airborne toxic event” later, in deep twilight, as a sinister black cloud shooting off lightning bolts. Death Itself is gunning for the Gladneys, and they eventually evacuate with the rest of the neighborhood.
What happens from here is best experienced in real time, but it’s safe to say that Death keeps popping up in the story in various forms—poison gas, Jack’s neuroses, Babbette’s pills, a gun in the final scenes. The various other characters we meet keep dodging the issue, too, sublimating their fear with stubborn rationalism, or flat denial, or the current craze of making up your own set of facts.
This may sound heavy—and it is, sometimes—but Baumbach’s tone is a carefully calibrated blend of deadpan humor and affectionate satire. It’s apocalypse comedy, and it speaks to our current national mood with real precision.
For veterans of that glorious decade, the eighties signifiers are fun: The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Golden Grahams cereal. Aqua Net hairspray. Sanka. Krull. (Krull!!) Several scenes are set in the old A&P supermarket, which we later learn may actually be the cosmic membrane between earth and the afterlife.
It gets weirder. Don Cheadle pops in and out as an academic colleague with an intense Elvis obsession. The old sex-and-death dynamic plays out in a seedy, infernal motel. Later, a spooky nun delivers a monologue in German. A long one.
DeLillo’s book has long endured a reputation for being unfilmable. Baumbach cracks the code by using his many skills as a filmmaker to transpose the book’s core ideas from page to screen. He gives us likable performers in Driver and Gerwig and even manages to make DeLillo’s dense dialogue work by nicking the heightened style of classic screwball comedies. Nobody talks like this, yet we recognize these people and what they’re feeling.
Perhaps most importantly, Baumbach gives us interesting things to look at. He composes his images carefully to supercharge the story’s themes, obsessions, and hang-ups. The Spielbergian 1980s sets are off-kilter, odd and slightly ridiculous, like the dialogue. Or consider the toxic airborne event. When we finally get a look at that lethal cloud, it’s terrifying and absurd all at once. Why would toxic gas shoot out lightning?
White Noise doesn’t behave like a traditional feature film of any genre. You don’t know what the next moment will bring. That’s what makes it so thrilling, so absurd, and so weirdly familiar. Have fun with it, and if you hear a bell tolling? Don’t ask.
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