Musings on the inevitability of death
It may come as a surprise that Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, Marriage Story) would depart from his personal, naturalist style to make White Noise, an absurdist film adaptation of Don DeLillo’s famous 1985 novel. But look closer and you’ll see relatable themes just as those that have long interested the director. Predominantly, in this case, the universal struggle against the inevitability of death.
Like most of us, I’d wager, White Noise’s characters are afraid of death–and this film was perhaps born of the same fear. It was 2020, at the start of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, that Baumbach reread DeLillo’s book and found parallels to our own dark times.
Baumbach proceeded to faithfully follow the novel in his movie, which follows Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), a college professor of his self-created Hitler Studies department. He and wife number 4 Babette (Greta Gerwig) have four kids, together and from different marriages.
Jack’s days are spent helping colleague Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle) create his own Elvis Studies department, taking clandestine German lessons to prepare for an upcoming Hitler conference, and worrying about Babette’s use of a mysterious pill called Dylar–but mainly, in delighting in his beloved family. Utterly in love with each other and with life, Jack and Babette can’t abide the thought of dying or losing each other. But intrusive thoughts soon become a realer possibility when a train wreck releases deadly chemicals into the air of their town, creating a situation called the “airborne toxic event.”
DeLillo’s novel has long been considered unadaptable due in part to its complex explorations of death, consumer culture, technology, and intellectualism–just to name a few themes. In a little over two hours, Baumbach unsurprisingly isn’t able to mine the depths of DeLillo’s work, but does give a valiant effort.
One could even say he’s too faithful with the source material, rigidly transposing dialogue straight from the page. This works occasionally to highlight the absurdity of everyday conversation–until calculated banter awkwardly gives way to a stiff statement from Jack that was never meant to be anything but his inner voice.
Above all, Baumbach captures the novel’s emphasis on death and society’s attitude towards it. There’s a scene in the book, only alluded to by Jack’s daughter Steffie in the film, where the grade school has to evacuate due to kids “getting headaches and eye irritations, tasting metal in their mouths.” No one knows what caused it, although investigators give a long list of potential reasons: “the ventilating system, the paint or varnish, the foam insulation…” The list goes on. It’s not until dangerous symptoms stare school officials right in the face that they are enabled to act. What DeLillo accomplishes through this scene–that contradictory mix of fear and callousness toward death–permeates throughout Baumbach’s adaptation. The message is both extremely current and for all time.
The “airborne toxic event” plot is resolved fairly quickly so the film can move on to other “deathward” plots. And although the emotional climax is somewhat harried and flat, maybe that’s the point. One distraction, and the horrors of this world become only white noise in the background, washed up by the bright colors of consumerism–but also the presence of loved ones. There’s a compelling blend of hope and dread, then, in one of 2022’s last film releases.
Verdict - 7.5/10