White Noise – BFI London Film Festival 2022

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer and Director: Noah Baumbach

The unshakable fear of death and its catastrophic presentation on film is the starting point for Noah Baumbach’s White Noise, receiving a Headline Gala screening at the BFI London Film Festival 2022. A multi-chapter study on disaster and destruction filtered through everyday family life, the colour-saturated design and scale of existential agony fills the screen while Baumbach’s cinematic influences range from disaster movies and film noir to popcorn television, advertising and pop culture consumerism.

J.A.K Gladney or Jack to his friends is a leading academic living in relatively happy chaos with wife Babette and their blended family in 80s America. Obsessed with the vehicular crashes on the news, when a genuine catastrophe arrives, the family is swept along with everybody else, but something darker is already eating away at their family and Jack must discover it.

White Noise is an eclectic movie, one that bombards the viewer with scenarios, musings and concepts as well as a range of complex visual impressions, all of which are carefully composed by Baumbach to create context and immersion in this world. Nothing is included by chance and what may seem like a dead end has something to add to the film’s multifaceted reflections on death, fear and the impact of visual culture on managing or enhancing human reaction.

The concept of iconography and public investment in tragic or mesmeric figures is key, aligning Jack’s scholarly pursuit of Hitler Studies with colleague Murray’s (Don Cheadle) desire to study Elvis and their effect on crowd behaviour. A rousing scene set at the College sees the pair indulge in a riff-off about their topics which in its way turns Jack in particular into a superstar that then generates its own effect on the student crowd. But Jack is not a typical hero and when Baumbach borrows from the disaster movie, Jack becomes just like everyone else as the family decamp – and it is certainly interesting to see these events from the point of view of the masses rather than the exceptional hero working against the tide to make it all better.

And though this, White Noise expands its thesis on the ingrained fear of death that leads people to all kinds of desperate and unexpected behaviours. While death looms large from an obvious source in the middle chapter, the rest of the film is more interested in the underlying dread beneath the routines and familiarity of everyday life. That this story takes place in a middle class, middle-aged, middle American family only enhances Baumbach’s point about the scale of death and the smallness of life.

Adam Driver never fails to inspire and here his Jack embraces his normality, a man focused on his family but thrown into unexpected situations which barely ruffle his paternal trust that all will be well. Greta Gerwig as his troubled wife Babbette is a quietly important performance while the family dynamic with children Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola and May Nivola has an entirely convincing energy as they talk over and try to outsmart one another.

White Noise is a big, complicated, messy film but one that rarely loses its hold on your attention. Jess Gonchor’s primary-coloured production design and Lol Crawley’s cinematography are rich on screen, fully involving the viewer and supporting Baumbach’s choreographed storytelling that feels both innovative and full of cinematic references.

White Noise is screening at the BFI London Film Festival 2022.

The Reviews Hub Score:

Existential catastrophising

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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