As one of Netflix’s golden directors (he’s already made Meyerowitz Stories and Marriage Story with them), it was only a matter of time before Noah Baumbach was truly given a blank check by the streamer and, with White Noise – his adaptation of Don DeLillo’s iconic ‘80s novel – we have a result. I’m very pleased to say that it’s a resounding success, Baumbach taking a huge leap up in terms of budget and scale from his previous dramedies and managing to perfectly marshal all the additional chaos that sort of size brings. It’s one of the year’s best and most ambitious films, a joyously confident exercise in bringing a famously ‘unadaptable’ book to the screen.
Split into three key segments, White Noise follows the Gladney family as their peaceful lives are upended by an unspecified but potentially deadly ecological catastrophe after a truck full of flammable chemicals crashes into a train full of toxic waste. It’s a grandly epic plot befitting Baumbach’s biggest budget to date, but White Noise takes its sweet time getting there, building its world and characters with utmost care. Gladney dad Jack (Adam Driver) is the foremost expert in the field of Hitler Studies (though, embarrassingly, can’t speak German), while mum Babette (Greta Gerwig, returning to acting after her wildly successful move into directing) is the quintessential ‘80s wife, at least when she’s not popping her mysterious Dylar pills that seem to wipe her memory.
We spend a lot of time with this pair and their kids, especially eldest daughter Denise (Raffey Cassidy), before the Airborne Toxic Event (as it comes to be known) throws everything into disarray. They’re brilliant company, sublime dialogue fizzing back and forth across family dinners and trips to the perfect supermarket, where everything is perfectly colour-coded and nothing is ever out of place. Conversations between different family members and strangers in crowds overlap in the busiest scenes – Baumbach turns his writing talents to ape not just DeLillo here, but often Altman too – creating a chaotic liveliness, although falling short of the anarchy of, say, Uncut Gems.
It’s great to see a big movie like this have such pride and thrill in its conversation scenes. Baumbach’s dialogue is snappy, revealing, and often laugh-out-loud funny – never more so than when it’s in the hands of Don Cheadle as Murray Siskind, who works alongside Jack at the local university and wants to start a course on Elvis to rival Jack’s Hitler seminars. Cheadle is note-perfect, inhabiting this off-kilter world like he’s lived there for years and a scene in which he and Driver deliver simultaneous lectures to a rapt shared audience is one of the best things Baumbach has ever done, all the ambition and technical bravura of a car chase or musical number dedicated entirely to just words.
That’s not to say that he slacks off in the action department – once the disaster kicks into gear, the set-pieces come thick and fast. Mostly revolving around mass panics, there are plenty of huge and intricate sequences, with screaming families, careening cars, and government agents in hazmat suits all jostling for position, but Baumbach and DOP Lol Crawley keep everything clear for us amidst their characters’ confusion.
It’s the most obvious mark of the tight control Baumbach manages to keep White Noise under. This is, by most measures, a real beast of a film, but you never feel the reins slacken or that Baumbach is simply indulging himself (with the exception of the grandly silly end credits, but those are more than earned). Even when the pace slackens somewhat in the final act, White Noise is a careful and deliberate film, bringing DeLillo’s world to sparkling visual life.
While we’re used to Baumbach working in more ‘realistic’ milieus, he seems very happy in this new, more stylised, world. Compositions are frequently gorgeous thanks to great uses of shadow and rich colours fill most frames, while Danny Elfman’s score makes for a thrilling accompaniment. What is perhaps most surprising is how deeply uncynical Baumbach’s style is here – his vision of an idealised suburbia might initially hit us as eerie simply due to our familiarity with how these locales are generally used, but Baumbach’s writing and camera never judge this place or its inhabitants. The supermarket is a wonder and a safe place, the families care for and understand one another in the face of danger. One might expect Baumbach to use a slightly surreal version of America’s past – not to mention the novel’s big ideas about American history, hysteria, and consumerism – to cast a scornful eye on its present, but this is, in the end, a movingly hopeful film.
In the best possible way, White Noise is unclassifiable, effortlessly switching genres on the fly while stepping in and out of a recognisable reality. It’s sharply silly yet endearingly warm, a place where a potential apocalypse can be weathered as long as you have your family, a good friend, and an even better deli counter. What a rare thing, for a film this major to feel so light on your soul.