White Noise is a film about “how crazy life is in America right now”, its director, Noah Baumbach, said at its London Film Festival premiere on 6 October. “Nobody’s telling you but it’s out of control.” His source material, Don DeLillo’s postmodern novel, was published in 1985, but its depiction of the American condition – defined by ecological destruction, rampant consumerism and an obsession with catastrophe – has hardly dated.
Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Marriage Story) was joined on stage by his partner, Greta Gerwig, for whom White Noise marks a return to acting after directing Lady Bird and Little Women. Gerwig plays Babette, a housewife with what’s described as “important hair”, who lives in a Midwestern college town with her husband, Jack (Adam Driver with a paunch), a professor of “Hitler studies”, and their mixed brood from various previous marriages. Their mundane family life is interrupted first by an “airborne toxic event” that forces them to evacuate their home, and then by Babette’s addiction to a mysterious drug, “dylar”.
White Noise is Baumbach’s furthest departure from his indie origins to date. As the plot descends into unreality, the film becomes increasingly self-aware. There are ET-like family-kitchen scenes, a car flying through the air as if in a road-trip comedy, a motel shoot-out that’s pure Brian De Palma. Baumbach has preserved DeLillo’s percussive, dense dialogue, and so characters say things like, “All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots” entirely straight-faced.
Gerwig has said that DeLillo’s plot is “so smart… you end up sounding like a stoned teenager” if you try to explain it. White Noise – which gets a cinema release on 25 November and comes to Netflix in December – is maximalist, funny, abrasive satire that resists interpretation. It’s worth watching to the end, though, for the credits alone – a weird and wonderful spectacle that many at the premiere rose too early to witness.
This article appears in the 12 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Will Putin go Nuclear?