White Noise Movie Review: A delightfully bizarre concoction
The transition from mood Spielberg to mood Lynch/Cronenberg might seem jarring to many, but I'm glad the film exists
Something that David Lynch said kept playing in my head as I got closer to the end of Noah Baumbach's new film White Noise. When it ended, I decided I would use the exact same quote if someone told me its inaccessibility infuriated them. Lynch said: “I don't know why people expect art to make sense. They accept the fact that life doesn't make sense.” I bring up Lynch because White Noise is the film that shows up once in a blue moon that I know I had a great time with but cannot really say with a hundred per cent certainty that I fully got what it all meant. But then I'm not sure I want to call it 'Lynchian' either because calling anything that fits into the "weird but interesting" category 'Lynchian' has become an annoying cliche. I can tell you this, though: I'm glad White Noise exists.
Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle
Streaming on: Netflix
I must say it's great to see Baumbach finally venturing into a space that accommodates the eerie, surreal, absurd, and fantastical. Though White Noise is his maiden attempt at tackling other genres like science fiction and dystopia, it is, at its heart, a relationship drama, a genre with which Baumbach is most associated. The early portions are reminiscent of early Spielberg, beginning with an idyllic portrait of a suburban family comprising a professor, Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig), and their four children. Every 80s-inspired detail -- art, music, dialogue -- is deliberate: to inform us of the stable and seemingly perfect existence of a big family until the imperfect aspects bubble up to the surface when triggered by a violent external event.
While on violence, the movie opens with another Professor, Murray (Don Cheadle), a colleague of Jack, taking a class on the "optimistic quality of violence." He is particularly referring to the spectacle in movies and how such distractions are necessary for ordinary folks to break the barrage of monotonous activity that torments them on a daily basis. It's interesting because there is a sense of irony here when White Noise slowly reveals its inherent chaos.
However, it's not just Spielberg's E.T. (or Close Encounters of the Third Kind) that its visual design recalls, but also John Carpenter and Walter Hill films. I was supremely delighted by how Baumbach gets the mood recreation right -- neon lights, cyan-pink colour combination, and synth score, among other things, wherever necessary.
Complementing this predominant 80s aesthetic is the almost mechanical delivery of overlapping dialogues -- the kind straight out of E.T. (an influence also noted in Netflix's Stranger Things), to an almost annoying extent. (I'm not a big fan of overlapping dialogues except when someone like Aaron Sorkin does it.)
White Noise -- based on Don DeLillo's novel of the same name -- has been marketed with a synopsis that reads like a typical apocalyptic event movie. But the central "disaster" exists in this story merely as a plot device to make its characters (and us) confront their own fears rather than something they should constantly run away from or try to resolve. Whether this "Airborne Toxic Event" gets resolved -- or not -- becomes eventually irrelevant; it's about how Jack and Babette, two people obsessed with death -- the fear of it, to be precise -- do absurd things in the name of it. This aspect reminds me of Lynch -- or even David Cronenberg, for that matter.
The transition from mood Spielberg to mood Lynch/Cronenberg and the placement of humour in certain situations might seem jarring to many -- the polarising responses to the film already suggest so. But I was intrigued by the idea of watching something that feels like three or four movies in one sitting. I worry that if I say more about it, I might ruin the experience of those who are about to see it. However, I think it is safe to say the film reflects the concerns of many who feel overwhelmed by the uncertainties of human existence, especially post-pandemic.
I know, I know, a film discussing our mortality is not exactly comfort material. That said, if you, like me, have the stomach for enduring a fair amount of bizarreness, then the cheerful climax staged like a quirky 80s music video might bring smiles to your face. Like I said earlier, I may require multiple revisits to grasp all its intricacies, but I'm glad it exists because I like it when a filmmaker dares to go out of his comfort zone. I can't wait to see what Baumbach and Greta have cooked up in their upcoming outing, Barbie. I expect it to be even wilder.