Adam Driver has established himself as a man of many talents over the years and as an actor who transcends genres. Be it his work in franchises such as Star Wars to the musical Annette. However, in Noah Baumbach’s latest feature, we see Driver tackle a part that borders on Brechtian and theatrical, giving us a brand-new viewing experience that, while exciting and commendable, may not be everyone’s cup of tea.
Adapted from the 1985 post-modern novel of the same name by Don DeLillo, White Noise is a metaphorically packed story that explores the universal fear of dying alone through the lens of a seemingly happy suburban family. Driver plays the part of the acclaimed professor who specialises in Hitler Jack Gladney, while Greta Gerwig takes on the role of his wife, Babette. Their family appears to be happy and functional at first glance. However, after a dark toxic cloud causes panic and quarantines in their neighbourhood, fractures, secrets and feelings of dread begin to reveal themselves.
White Noise isn’t presented as a typical cinematic narrative, though. Instead, it is more of a call back to German theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht’s principles of Epic Theatre. The drama movie is packed with alienation techniques, which are designed to keep the audiences as critical observers instead of immersed viewers lost in a fictional world.
Yes, I know that this statement may sound pretentious to some, and let’s be honest, sometimes it is. But it is also undeniably fascinating and fresh to see on the big screen as well.
Dialogue is deliberately stilled and robotic at points, the characters are deliberately simple and over the top, and the narrative is deliberately fractured and heavy with metaphorical meaning. Just as Driver’s character is teaching his class, viewers of White Noise are turned into students, watching a portrayal of philosophies embodied with critical eyes that are taking notes instead of being swept up in pure fiction.
As Driver delivers bloated lines and revels in over-the-top lectures that feel akin to sermons, it is easy to dismiss Baumbach’s style choices as too foreign and confusing at first glance. However, once you let go of your notions of conventional storytelling and let White Noise play on, audiences can appreciate the emotional impact that the unconventional structure and performances offer.
As mentioned above, White Noise is about the universal and wholly human fear of dying alone. And this existential message is brilliantly carried throughout the drama movie’s runtime. Be it with the physical angst from the looming toxic cloud, the emotional turmoil of Jack and Babette’s marriage, or the emphasis of figures who transcend death, such as Hitler or Elvis Presley, White Noise is full of subtext that keeps you captivated as you begin to unravel it all.
Since we aren’t drawn into individual characters or immersed in a ‘fictional’ world that suspends our disbelief, in White Noise, we are left only with these philosophical questions about mortality and the feeling of tension leading to despair as unavoidable death approaches. In short, even for those unfamiliar with Brecht or Epic theatre will leave the cinema affected, feeling heavy and emotionally spent.
The use of experimental camera work must also be commended in White Noise. Striking imagery, with the toxic cloud, the slick transitions, and the unsettling scenes of Jack’s psyche, are hard to forget. Similarly, the performances in the thriller movie prove to be a standout feature as all actors show commitment to the theatrical demands of Baumbach’s vision. But all these complicated positives aside, White Noise is by no means perfect.
With a lack of visual storytelling during multiple dialogue-heavy scenes lasting for minutes on end and a script that stumbles in its third act, White Noise, at points, gets strangled by its own ideas and style choices. Over-explaining its experimental principles via repeated alienation techniques, such as overlapping dialogue, begins to wear thin, and leaves the feeling as if the film is revelling too much in its intention of being metaphorical instead of following through practically.
At the end of the day, White Noise works, and doesn’t at the same time. It succeeds on an emotional and visual front, championed by its cast of strong performers. But it fails to craft a fully engaging story or utilise its obvious homage to Brecht in an accessible and digestible way for audiences who may not be the biggest theatre enthusiasts.
White Noise, at its core, is a great watch that seems as if it was on the cusp of creating a fresh and excitingly lasting comment about human’s fear of mortality. However, despite all of its intuitive and intriguing ideas, it is a film that feels as if it just missed its desired mark.
White Noise hits theatres on November 25 2022, before landing on the streaming service Netflix on December 30.
A film that may not be everyone’s cup of tea but is still an exciting and unique viewing experience.