White Noise review – Don DeLillo adaptation is a blackly comic blast

DeLillo’s novel of campus larks and eco dread has long been ogled by Hollywood. Now it gets an elegant, droll treatment from Noah Baumbach, starring Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig

Noah Baumbach’s terrifically stylish movie, adapted by him from the 1985 novel by Don DeLillo, is a deadpan comedy of catastrophisation, a meditation on western prosperity and its discontents, its anxieties, its intellectual satiety. It’s a sensuous apocalyptic reverie founded on the assumption that nothing can really go wrong – or can it? Could it be that our preoccupations with ecological disaster are not played out in the service of rational pre-emptive measures, but irrational occult fears, supernatural inoculations against death?

DeLillo’s garrulous and witty novel of ideas has been hungered after by film-makers for nearly 40 years (Emma Cline even wrote a short story called White Noise in 2020 about Harvey Weinstein hoping to reclaim respectability by making a DeLillo movie.) Baumbach has landed a sizeable white whale in his tremendously elegant and assured adaptation.

His film amplifies not merely the book’s richness as a period piece which speaks of the trendy zeitgeistiness of postmodernism on the American campus, but how prescient it is about the fears of the present day. The horror of the American suburban heartland in the face of the poisonous chemical cloud floating overhead - the “airborne toxic event” – feels like an address to Covid and the lockdown, and making uneasy, normalising accommodations with this pandemic.

And it is about an obsession with the growing ubiquity of information and interpretation, the availability of data that show one thing and apparently equally valid data that show the opposite. This is the white noise of ersatz fact: the fizz of bad television reception in which conspiracy and fake news takes root: a particulate formless blur. When I first read the novel I thought of the thing we used to as kids: place your face very close to the TV screen while a programme was on to see nothing but the tiny pixels.

Adam Driver plays a midwestern academic in the liberal arts called Jack Gladney, middle-aged and given what I thought was a fake pot belly but in one scene in his doctor’s treatment room he has his shirt off, revealing a paunch. Greta Gerwig plays Babette, his amiable distracted wife – both divorcees, they preside over a lively household of annoyingly precocious children and stepchildren.

Jack is America’s leading light in the world of the strangely preposterous discipline of Hitler Studies (Gladney speaks no German) an ahistorical technique of deconstructing the iconography of Hitler without being overwhelmed by or even necessarily aware of the tragic and horrendous context. Among its other premonitions, the story foresees the “end of history” briefly and modishly celebrated in the west with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Jack’s colleague Murray Siskind (drolly played by Don Cheadle) is hoping to do for Elvis what Jack has done with Hitler and a big set piece has the two men delivering an ingenious (and flippant and insouciantly provocative) analysis of Elvis and Hitler at the same time. Slavoj Žižek has nothing on these guys.

Jack and Babette are content in an uneasy way, dramatised by time-honoured movie visits to the dreamy, affectless giant supermarket which is incidentally the site of a gloriously choreographed closing credit sequence. But Jack has worries. Babette has symptoms of what appear to be early onset dementia: she also seems to be addicted to a mysterious drug called Dylar, empty bottles of which appear in the trash. Without Google, Jack and his children have no choice but to ask academic colleagues and comb medical textbooks to find out what on earth “Dylar” is and what its dangers are. (In a similarly pre-YouTube state, the kids are obsessed with plane crash footage on the TV news, waiting impatiently for it to be shown.)

And then the great crash happens – an environmental disaster caused by a Jack Daniel’s-swigging truck driver transporting oceans of gasoline crashing into a train transporting volatile toxic waste. (We have already seen Murray giving an amusing lecture on how the car crash in American cinema is an essentially light-hearted genre.) The resulting poison cloud causes them to leave their homes, an exodus involving a wonderfully surreal scene in which the station wagon drifts down a swollen river.

This bizarre freak occurrence that nonetheless exposes Jack to airborne toxins, which he discovers from maddeningly unreliable sources may well kill him in a couple of decades. True or not, this claim has been a way for Jack to realise he is going to die. And Babette too is afraid of her own death. Death is the film’s stratum of seriousness beneath the campus crisis and marital comedy – death is the one inescapable real thing among all the rumour and surmise: the film shows the characters simultaneously afraid of death but holding to it as the single guarantee of certainty in their lives.

Jack and Babette’s bizarre lives – a knight’s-move away from reality – are too strange to be sympathised with, for all the Spielbergian family chatter in the kitchen. But they are there to be to marvelled at. It is such a fascinating, invigorating spectacle.

• White Noise screened at the Venice film festival; it is released in cinemas on 2 December and will be released on Netflix on 30 December.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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