White Noise Review
In a recent interview M Night Shyamalan claimed that prior to Sixth Sense scary movies were not a legitimate genre and that it was his film alone that gave birth to the horror sub genre; the Supernatural Thriller. Now, whether his claim is as accurate as it is self-appreciative is, of course, subjective. The argument does have certain credence though as the 1999 chiller did undoubtedly help to thrust the modern ghost story onto the mainstream radar, although quite whether hardcore horror fans appreciate this new status is questionable. Hollywood, with a little help from its Asian mentors have since showered us with riches of the dark and twisted and with The Others, The Ring and, more recently, The Forgotten and The Grudge, the Supernatural Thriller has metamorphosed from a sub genre into an entire industry.
However, whilst the industry have simply inundated us with things which go bump in the celluloid, the same frivolous generosity has not been as forthcoming from a certain Michael Keaton. With his last major film, Jack Frost, now an unbelievable seven years old, the world has been suffering from a serious case of Keaton underload. But now he is back and in Geoffrey Sax’s atmospheric frightener White Noise the common has teamed up with the rare to throw up an abundance of questions. Is a Supernatural Thriller the right vehicle for a Keaton comeback? Is Keaton the right driver of a Supernatural Thriller? And is the combination of the two the right ingredients for Sax’s first foray into film from television?
Jonathan Rivers (Keaton) is a successful architect who, despite a divorce with the mother of his son Michael, is, with his beautiful author wife Anna (Chandra West), blissfully content with life. But it is on the day the couple learn that they are to be parents’ tragedy strikes their world as a car accident robs Anna of her life.
Three weeks after the accident and with her body still missing, Rivers is approached by Raymond Price (Ian McNeice) who claims that he has been contacted by his dead wife. Price introduces Rivers into the world of Electronic Voice Phenomenon, or EVP, and shows him evidence that via white noise recordings (essentially the static noise found between radio stations) he has received messages from many of those on the other side, including his own son years earlier. It quickly becomes apparent however that not all of the spirits are friendly and Price himself soon becomes victim to some of the darker entities.
Following Price's death, Rivers finds himself dangerously obsessed with continuing his work and, with another recent mourner and co-client of Price, Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), he successfully contacts his deceased spouse. Rather than receiving messages of love and encouragement, Rivers interprets her words as warnings for others and begins to act upon them. Ignoring the advice of other voices warning him not to meddle, Rivers follows his wife’s clues all the way to the climax of the film, as his obsession hits fever pitch and he loses touch with reality almost completely.
White Noise has some nice touches and with numerous dothed caps in the direction of Asian Cinema along the way, it finds itself in a comfortable position alongside other recent efforts. However, in the midst of a glut of similar offerings, the challenge of any new chiller/thriller is to stand out from the crowd. Unfortunately, White Noise fails to achieve this.
The concept itself is an excellent one and the real phenomenon of EVP is both mystifying and intriguing and an excellent basis for a movie. But Sax, alongside screenwriter Niall Johnson, is slightly guilty of trivialising and under-representing this complicated dark science and this manifests itself in a film lacking any real dimension or depth. That isn’t to say that they take the easy option. Sax and partner do resist the temptation of offering a series of cheap thrills to give the would-be “jumpers” their sport, as others have achieved recently, most notably The Grudge. White Noise certainly tries to be an intelligent and atmospheric thriller on a different plateau to the aforementioned, and, in all fairness, it probably achieves it. But, unfortunately, the shocks that are usually the products of the genre are not replaced with enough substance of the subject matter and, therefore, White Noise essentially becomes an unoriginal product of gimmick filmmaking. A film straight out of the “How-To-Make-a-Supernatural-Thriller Handbook” with the token gimmick of being based on a true phenomenon.
Unfortunately, a bi-product of a one-dimensional film is one-dimensional characters, which is a shame because the actors are, on the whole, well cast and perform with sincerity and integrity. This is most apparent in Unger (The Game) who is a good foil for the recently dormant Keaton whose own performance is enough to remind us what we’ve been missing in recent years, although not enough to serve as a showcase for his talents. Keaton is obviously an actor most at home tapping into the extremes of his personality with his wonderful and wickedly playful Beetlejuice and his dark and brooding antihero interpretation of Batman, serving as a couple of his better examples. The bland but wounded victim type doesn’t appear to fit the man. With Jonathan Rivers, a man who has almost everything and loses it, we should feel pity or at least empathy. But as he dives into a pool of insular grief, it is difficult to be moved because not enough of the human being is revealed. Whether this fault lies with director, writer or actor is arguable, but it is certainly one of the major drawbacks of the film. Ultimately, it is impossible to care about one-dimensional characters.
The script itself is a little woolly, which is probably a result of the mishandling of the film's subject matter. Too many questions are thrown up without any answers to match. This, when used as a deliberate ploy in films (for instance Donnie Darko) can be an effective and interesting tool. In this case it simply appears accidental and results in a series of unfulfilling and frustratingly bland scenes. In the end you are not left wanting more, but instead disappointed that you didn’t receive it in the first place. The pace of the film has also to take much of the blame. The references to Japanese Horror are obvious but understandable. The presence of an innocent child, the grey landscapes, the focus on televisions screens, which results in most of the action being confined to watching “snow” and watching Keaton watching “snow”, and even the soundtrack are all very recognisable and offer echoes of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu and Dark Water. Dark Water itself is notoriously slow paced, but the climax is so devastating that the previous watch-checking moments are forgotten completely. But with White Noise the absence of a twist or surprise at the climax of the film fails to justify the previous laborious exchanges. After telling yourself again and again that something will happen soon, you are left feeling slightly robbed that it never does and questioning whether what you have just seen actually has a point at all.
In conclusion, White Noise is a fair effort, but ultimately frustrates, disappoints and results in little fulfilment for the audience. To respond to earlier questions, if the Supernatural Thriller and Michael Keaton are to have extended shelf lives, which I suspect they will, it will be in spite of rather than as a result of White Noise. Sax’s film debut is not entirely misplaced and he should go on to show greater originality and flair in the future.
White Noise is essentially Ghost meets Frequency meets Sixth Sense. If you liked those films, you shouldn’t be too disappointed, apart from the absence of the climactic bombshell of the latter. But then again, we can’t all be as brilliant as Mr Shyamalan, can we?