Netflix Streaming: Violence is a Form of Rebirth: White Noise (2022) - Reviewed


All photos courtesy of Netflix

In the opening act of White Noise (2022) Professor Murray Siskind (played by an intense Don Cheadle) speaks to his class about the emotional appeal of car crashes in film. Why are audiences excited by them? Siskind seems to think it's indicative of the ingenuity of American cinema, not unlike children smashing toy cars together while playing. If one can look past the violence of them, he muses, there is a kind of innocent beauty in the destruction. 

While watching this movie I felt like Noah Baumbach was asking the same from me, a plea to ignore all of the strange asides, stilted dialogue, and hammy performances and just enjoy the pure craft. Unfortunately, these negatives were just too distracting, and despite fleeting moments of cleverness and poignancy, the script is too haphazard and chaotic for me to ground myself into the narrative.

Adam Driver plays Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies who outside of his work has a somewhat normal life. His current wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) is neurotic but supportive, and his precocious children are independent and thriving. Jack's life is thrown into disarray when a train carrying toxic chemicals crashes near his city and is dubbed a "Airborne Toxic Event" forcing him and his family to flee. On top of all this, he discovers his wife has been secretly taking an untested street drug called Dylar for an unknown ailment. 

True to the title of the film, if one were to compare the different plot lines happening simultaneously to frequencies, it would indeed be considered cinematic "white noise"--so many things are happening at once it becomes impossible to discern one single theme clearly. Though the book this film is based on was written in 1985, far predating the pandemic, the Airborne Toxic Event slides easily into a metaphor for the past two years with Baumbach having the characters wear masks (to protect against the noxious fumes, you see) and lambasting the conflicting reports and media frenzy that ensued during the emergency. It feels shoehorned in and White Noise doesn't offer any commentary on it besides drawing obvious parallels. 

The main theme that peeks its head above all the pandemonium is how people deal with getting older and contemplating their own death. Jack has a health scare due to his exposure to the toxins and as he comes to grips with his own mortality, he also discovers that other people in his life are harboring the same feelings. On paper, all of these ideas are compelling, but in execution the lack of coalescence in Baumbach's script makes for a dizzying ride. It feels like three separate films glued together, like an anthology instead of a single focused piece of work. Every character also talks with the same "voice" spouting out complex diatribes constantly but not really saying anything of value. 

It can be argued that perhaps that is the point, that the form of the film is echoing the sentiment being expressed, which is that the minutia of daily life is often overwhelming and baffling. If that is the intent it certainly succeeded, but at the cost of clarity and empathy for the characters.

--Michelle Kisner