Death unites us all. And societies are shaped by not just the dread of that inevitable outcome but the common manners in which we push those existential thoughts aside. Consumerism, conspiracy theories, and collective trauma collide in Noah Baumbach’s daring adaptation of a novel that may have been published in the mid-’80s but undeniably speaks to the issues that continue to dominate our culture in the 2020s. A story of a family unmoored from their already fragile existence by an airborne toxic event has relevance to the COVID era that author Don DeLillo couldn’t have imagined specifically. Yet, the source material here is designed to speak to a larger sense of trauma and fear—elements that will never go away as long as that pesky Grim Reaper remains in our lives. Baumbach’s adaptation of “White Noise” unpacks these complex themes with a playful spirit for about 90 minutes before the writer/director arguably loses his grip on the more serious material in the final act. Still, there’s more than enough to like here when it comes to the unexpected blend of an author and filmmaker who one wouldn’t necessarily consider matches. Life is full of surprises, right?
“White Noise” opens with a professor named Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle) speaking of the comfort of car crashes on film. Like every choice in this script, it’s not an accident. Siskind speaks of the simplicity of the car crash, noting how it cuts through character and plotting to something that’s easily understood and relatable. It foreshadows the mid-section of a film that will play essentially like a disaster movie, asking viewers to imagine what they would do if stuck in the same situation. And it’s a set-up for another fascinating aspect of “White Noise”—a commentary on crowd catharsis. We are at peace when we see others doing the same thing we are doing, whether it’s watching a car crash in a movie, attending an Elvis concert, or buying things we don’t need at an A&P grocery store.
Someone who keenly understands groupthink is Professor Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), one of the world experts on Hitler Studies, even though he’s embarrassed that he doesn’t speak German. The first act—and the film is divided into three parts on-screen—could be called a satire of academia as Gladney, Siskind, and their colleague use big words to help get a grip on big problems. Jack and his wife Babbette (Greta Gerwig) have a blended family that includes the anxiety-prone Denise (Raffey Cassidy), problem-solving Heinrich (Sam Nivola), and two more children. Babbette has forgotten things lately, and Denise notices a new prescription bottle for a drug called Dylar. This is an everyday American family—going through the motions of life as they try to push away the issues that have dogged philosophers for eons, like the meaning of it all and how to stop thinking about when it ends. In one of the best early scenes, a comment about how happy they are leads Babbette and Jack into a conversation about who should die first.
While death is a concern in the first act of “White Noise,” it becomes more tactile in the second act, titled “The Airborne Toxic Event.” A train crash at the edge of town sends chemicals flying into the sky, and everyone in the Gladney family except Jack panics. As he tries to defuse the situation, Denise becomes convinced that she’s sick already, and Henrich obsessively listens to news reports. Before long, they’re on the road in a mass evacuation, and one of Baumbach’s most impressive technical achievements unfolds, capturing a family on the run from the unknown.
Without spoiling the final act completely, it re-centers the Gladneys back at home, but with death a much more present reality in Jack’s mind. Unfortunately, as the intensity rises, “White Noise” loses some of its impact, especially in a few talky scenes near the end that betray the tone of the first half. Yes, the film always deals with “serious” subjects, but it gets rocky when they take center stage, and the tone struggles to merge satire and marital drama. DeLillo’s book was notoriously called “unfilmable” for decades, and it feels like this last act is where that’s most apparent.
Thankfully, Baumbach has two of his most reliable collaborators to keep it from going off the rails. Driver is, once again, excellent here, crafting a performance that is often very funny without relying on broad character beats. There’s a version of this character that’s pitched to eleven—the awkward academic forced into trying to keep his family alive despite his inferior skill set—but Driver gives a performance that’s often very subtle even as everything around him is going broad. Gerwig is a little oddly mannered early in the film, but that makes sense for a character who becomes somewhat unmoored before the air around her becomes toxic.
To unpack this epic of existential dread, Baumbach has assembled a team that deserves mention. Cinematographer Lol Crawley (“Vox Lux”) finds the right balance between realism and parody in his camera work, giving much of the film an exaggerated look amplified by Jess Gonchor’s ace production design. The A&P here, with its bright colors and shelves of identical items, is not quite reality, but it’s close enough to make its point, and the chaotic sequences of panic in the mid-section have the energy of a CGI blockbuster. Finally, Danny Elfman’s score is one of the best of the year, connecting the three tonally different sections.
What does it all mean? Why do we take pills, buy junk, and watch car crashes to escape our fears? The phenomenal A&P dance sequence that ends “White Noise” lands a key theme in a fascinating way—we may all just be buying colorful stuff we don’t need to distract ourselves from reality, but let’s at least try to have fun while we’re doing it.