White Noise – Film Review – London Film Festival

Director: Noah Baumbach

Writer: Noah Baumbach

Starring: Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle, Jodie Turner-Smith, Raffey Cassidy

Rating: ★★★★½

Don DeLillo’s book White Noise was first published in 1985, and you’d think the story and themes would feel a little out of date almost forty years later, and yet Noah Baumbach’s faithful adaptation shows that times haven’t changed that much. It’s a brilliant film, that manages to capture the magic and oddness of DeLillo’s satirical book.

Noah Baumbach’s usual collaborators, Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig, star as Jack and Babette Gladney, a middle-aged couple who both have a crippling fear of dying. After a truck crashes into a train, causes a Toxic Airborne Event, Jack is exposed to something that could be lethal. He’s not given an estimate of when he’ll die, just that there’s something living inside him that may kill him at some point, or maybe it won’t. They’ll know a lot more in fifteen years, or so, as that’s half the time the exposure is estimated to remain in Jack’s body.  

Even though the information he’s given is incredibly vague, it still sets off Jack’s anxiety, as he can now see that his days are truly numbered. He starts to visit the doctor more, but at the same time lies to him about his exposure, believing that if the doctor can’t find anything wrong with him then it’s all good. At the same time Babette has her own secret, as she’s been taking a strange new pill, and won’t give any details about it when Jack starts to question it.  

For a film that’s so obsessed with death, it’s surprisingly really funny, with lots of black humour about life, death and everything in between. There’s a running joke about being part of the herd and not an individual, from the mass consumerism and idolisation of the supermarket, to watching others while escaping the Toxic Event to see how scared they should be. At one point Jack claims that if you join in with a crowd you put up a barrier from death, and when you go out on your own you risk a individual death.

Jack is one of the leading professors in Hitler Studies, even though he can’t speak German, and is a minor celebrity in his field. Him teaching Nazism to students leads to a lot of bleak jokes. There’s a strange scene, one that actually works better on screen than in the book, where Jack visits Murray’s (Don Cheadle) lecture on Elvis to lend him some of his credibility. They both start spouting out their knowledge on their respective expertise, detailing things like Hitler’s and Elvis’s relationships with their mothers, as if the classroom is a boxing ring. It’s completely bizarre and over the top, but very funny. The whole film is a little bit odd, swaying away from realism to create something uncanny and it really works.

One of the more interesting things about the film is that the children in the family often come across as smarter and more mature than their parents. It’s Denise (Raffey Cassidy) who suspects that her mother is taking some kind of drug. She brings it to Jack’s attention, guiding him on how to investigate it the whole time. There’s one point where he just copies what she says, as if it was his idea when it wasn’t. When Jack finally confronts Babette he uses the threat of her daughter to try and get the information about the drug. The adults are shown as obsessive and unaware, as they’re more focused on their eventual death. As soon as they become aware that they are going to die, they retreat into paranoia and immaturity.

Thankfully, the odd and unnatural language from the book is kept pretty much word for word, but with some great performances from the entire cast it doesn’t come across as forced at all. Everyone seems to speak at lightning speed, often cutting over each other. They’re not always communicating, sometimes they’re just speaking at each other. There’s a reoccurring idea about family breeding misinformation as they spout opinions at each other so quickly no one can counter it if they know the truth at all. There are moments where the conversations overlap, with the camera moving around the family, so you get snippets but not the whole thing. The family move in a rhythm, like ordered chaos.

That structure, which is featured so heavily in the opening scenes of the film, with the new students arriving and a breakfast at the Gladney home, contrasts with the absolute chaos later as the Toxic Airborne Event takes hold. People running each other over, people running about without direction, and fear brewing. It’s dizzyingly quick at points, but everything is so easy to follow.  

Baumbach blends several genres together, fantastically weaving comedic scenes with more dramatic moments. There’s a sweet and romantic relationship between Babette and Jack, while also an incredibly dark horror sequence in one of Jack’s dreams, that’s completely unsettling to watch. The moments of the Toxic Event are also filmed like a disaster movie, with plenty of action, that seems to come out of nowhere.

Noah Baumbach has managed to perfectly recreate Don DeLillo’s book on screen. It seemed like an unfilmable book, but all the magic is still there. One of the best films of the year so far. From start to finish it’s funny and bleak satire on consumerism, while also a life affirming story about dealing with the fear of death.

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About ashleymanningwriter

Young Adult Fiction writer. Horror and fantasy blended together.
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