Noah Bambauch’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s White Noise opens with college professor Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle) holding forth on one of the true triumphs of American exceptionalism: the cinematic car crash. It’s an act of optimism, he explains to his students (and this audience), a staged act of carnage that only American movies execute well, thrilling us with the danger while skillfully avoiding any actual energy. It’s a decidedly meta touch by Baumbach, a filmmaker whose previous works have consisted primarily of people talking (fascinating people, to be sure, saying witty and memorable things), here dipping his toe into the waters of spectacle and bombast.
That self-awareness continues into the following scenes, as Danny Elfman’s witty score apes the twinkly preciousness of John Williams’ ‘80s work for Spielberg while Baumbach stages a bustling station wagon brigade, suburban parents delivering their nervous teenagers to the first day of school at the “College On The Hill,” one of the less-than-subtle winks to the Reagan era (the book was published in 1985, and Baumbach, who also adapted the screenplay, wisely keeps that setting). Later scenes also quote the Spielberg visual playbook: the good-natured hubbub of the busy family kitchen, a Close Encounters-esque scene of the patriarch tearing open trash bags in the family garage, the distinctive Spielberg tableaux of people! Gazing! Upwards!
But that’s all after the chaos begins. When we meet Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) and his wife Babbette (Greta Gerwig), they have a fairly average life, “and I hope it lasts forever,” she sighs. Both are teachers and intellectuals; it’s each of their fourth marriages, and they’re raising a patchwork brood of children new and old. But all is not well under the cozy surface: Babbette is popping pills, and Jack seems distracted, and this is all before the Airborne Toxic Event.
The sequence setting off said event is one of the best directed of Baumbach’s career. Jack, you see, is the head of the College on the Hill’s “Hitler Studies program” (don’t worry, it’s played for laughs), while Siskind’s specialty is pop icons; he’s hoping to launch an Elvis Studies program, so he asks Jack to pop in on a big lecture. As they trade-off facts and theories on Hitler and Elvis, we see, outside of town, an 18-wheeler of “FLAMMABLE” materials headed to an intersection with a “TOXIC CHEMICALS” train car. Baumbach intercuts this inevitable collision with Jack pontificating on Hitler’s death, and historical footage (of both Elvis and Hitler), and the results are unexpectedly breathtaking.
The Hitler material is one of the ways in which this nearly forty-year old source material has proven unexpectedly timely; Jack’s theories on Hitler’s appeal, and how people are drawn to charismatic figures when they’re scared, don’t exactly require a flow chart, particularly as he describes the participatory nature of his hate rallies (“They were there to be a crowd”). And the Airborne Toxic Event is similarly relevant, particularly early on, as Jack attempts to be optimistic and reassuring to his family (“Nothing going to happen!” he insists, as many of us did in early 2020) in the face of not only unsubstantiated rumors but constantly shifting (and reversing) information from authorities. (“We’re quarantined! Like lepers in medieval times!” bellows Bill Camp, ranting and raving beautifully in a too-brief appearance.)
“She’s been different after The Event,” Jack says, and Murray understands: “She suffered a collective trauma.” This is Gerwig and Baumbach’s first collaboration in some time (they last teamed on Mistress America, clear back in 2014), and her work here is a reminder of her staggering gifts as an actor, which is easy to forget, since she’s become such an exceptional filmmaker. But her turn as Babbette manages a perfect balance of real pain and dark humor, and when she finally makes her big confession to Jack, and despairs, “You cherish your wife who tells you everything, and I am trying my best,” it hones in on a genuinely palpable and relatable sense of frustration and hopelessness. Driver matches her well, in that scene and throughout the picture; there’s something so raw and wounded about where they end up, and the sense we nevertheless have that they’ll get through all of this.
White Noise doesn’t feel quite like any of Baumbach’s previous work, and as such, it’s also his most stylishly directed; one gets the sense that since he is not the primary author, he was able to give more attention to the kind of directorial flourishes that might have felt like distractions before. The tone is a bit more scattered than usual (though, again, that’s in the source material), running the gamut from borderline slapstick (the inspired chaos of a camp evacuation is busy and wired, like a vintage John Landis sequence), to a moody, neo-noir feel by the climax. And it comes to an honest-to-goodness perfect conclusion, with a closing sequence that feels like a deleted scene from David Byrne’s True Stories. This, needless to say, is the highest of compliments.
“White Noise” is now playing in limited release. It streams on Netflix on December 30.