Three years ago, Film Fest 919 opened the 2019 festival with Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, and I was taken. It was a much more muted affair for the Frances Ha and While We’re Young filmmaker, known for his quirkier approach to sometimes mundane material. Marriage Story found beauty in the mundanity of grand changes in life and in the sadness that comes with it. His follow up, White Noise, Baumbach’s third film at Netflix, reunites Baumbach with lead actor Adam Driver, as well as with three time Academy Award-nominated filmmaker and real life wife (and Marriage Story catalyst) Greta Gerwig. Not much has really been said about White Noise in the grand scheme of awards season. Marketing from Netflix has been sparse, it hasn’t had the scandalous press tour of Don’t Worry Darling, or the general acclaim of TÁR or The Banshees of Inisherin, or the controversy of Netflix’s other festival player Blonde (which went down with audiences like the Hindenburg). So one has to stop and wonder…what is White Noise? What’s its deal? Why is it so hard to pin down?
White Noise follows the Gladley family, father Jack (Adam Driver), mother Babette (Greta Gerwig), children from previous marriages Denise (Raffey Cassidy), Heinrich (Sam Nivola), Steffie (May Nivola), and their child together, Wilder (Dean Moore). Jack is a professor of Hitler studies at the local university, where he is friends with the enigmatic professor of cinema car crashes and Elvis enthusiast Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle). When a semi-truck collides with a train transporting a hazardous gas near town, the family is forced into a hectic and comedically incompetent evacuation procedure. As the family grapples with their mortality in this possible natural disaster, they soon reckon with the nature of the mundane lives they lead, and the way this life might change if given the chance to return to normalcy, if normalcy ever was, or ever will, continue to be a thing.
I absolutely understand why I haven’t heard much about the details of White Noise and why I went into it so completely blank as to what to expect. Much like adapting something like I’m Thinking of Ending Things to film, White Noise is nearly impossible to describe in one plot summary. This is a film that holds so much more than what can be found on paper and is best experienced with little-to-no knowledge of the film’s story, not that it could ever be properly described without sounding like a clinically insane rambler. But perhaps more insane than the way the story, based on the award-winning 1985 novel by Don DeLillo, plays out, is how much it works in execution. How, within the over-the-top satire, comically pretentious monologues, and self-aware mockery of the type of self-important works that the characters of White Noise would eat up as gospel, it all flows together into a cohesive image that revels in its disorder.
White Noise gives everyone in the cast the opportunity to balance deep existentialism with liminal absurdism in their performances, and not entirely surprising, but entirely refreshing to see everyone just *get* what is being gestured at here. There is a rhythm between the actors that only comes from a deep understanding of the material on both the actors’ and the director’s parts. However, it’s hard to say that the great equalizer in White Noise is anyone but Driver. Most of the film is spent with Jack, and every wondrous performance in the film comes from the deep chemistry that everyone in the film has with Driver, regardless of role size. Whether involved with Gerwig’s Babette in most scenes, or the limited interactions he has with André Benjamin’s Elliot, there is just an X-factor that brings the best out in everyone, including what I can assume to be Baumbach as a director, too, solely from Driver’s presence in this.
While by no means a blockbuster, White Noise is hands down the largest scale production Baumbach has ever worked on (unless you count writing the screenplay for Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted), and frankly, it’s a simply gorgeous affair, evoking the bleak Cold War suburban aesthetic that shines in a lovely aged light in Baumbach and cinematographer Lol Crawley’s (mostly) 35mm film photography. Contrasting this is the film’s wonderfully cheery view of the American supermarket, and the bright, impeccably organized, fluorescent utopia that exists as a watering hole for the suburban American among the measured chaos of the world of White Noise.
Complementing the wacky world of White Noise comes the soundtrack to a true suburban existence in Danny Elfman’s traditional and inspiring score that wonderfully contrasts the wild nature of the film that it’s backing. Like everything else, it presents a wonderful dissonance in the strange satire put forth, and with his almost Simpsons-esque quality punctuating the madness as if the Gladney family was simply the Simpsons dealing with a nuclear fallout on Homer’s watch. There’s wonderful poetry in that, leaving you with both a sense of wonder, as well as with a hearty chuckle once you hear the awe-inspiring soundtrack play out in context to its surroundings.
It’s so hard to actually pin down what makes White Noise such a genius achievement in filmmaking. Is it the fact that it plays out like Charlie Kaufman directed 10 Cloverfield Lane? Perhaps. Is it a fever dream of American consumerism that plays out like an episode of The Simpsons? Also yes. Is it every genre imaginable, while pulling off each strand with a borderline miraculous ease? Sure. If you still can’t track what White Noise is actually about, good; this is exactly how the film should be consumed. There is a seemingly endless list of reasons that I love this film immensely, and I’m finding this exact list is also many viewers’ reasons for why they hate it, and for Baumbach to leave such a safe zone following Marriage Story to make something so boldly unconventional makes this white whale of an adaptation feel somehow even more tremendous. It’s easily the best film I saw at Film Fest 919 this year, and one of the best I’ve seen all year.
Final Score: 5 out of 5.