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“I Wore a Ski Mask to Hide My Shame”: *White Noise* Review

White Noise, directed by Noah Baumbach, is a confident, often chaotic, and consistently funny adaptation of the 1985 novel by Don DeLillo. Though published 40 years ago, the novel speaks to many of the realities of the early 2020s in a post-pandemic (but are we really?), global (sure doesn’t feel “global ” sometimes, does it?), panoptic, plugged-in world. Baumbach is clearly trying to take as much from the novel as he humanly can. In its 136-minute run time, the film manages to capture the essence of DeLillo’s novel: the fear of the future, the fear of the past, and the even more troubling and crippling fear of the present.

Part I of the novel opens with College-on-the-Hill’s move-in day, describing the chaotic arrival of station wagons packed to the brim with all manner of college paraphernalia. In contrast, the film smartly begins with Murray Jay Siskind (Don Cheadle) giving a lecture about car crashes in American TV shows. Siskind asserts that these car crashes present a kind of “American optimism” because each one is better than the last. By opening with this scene, Baumbach makes it clear that the ideas that White Noise presents are not to be taken at face value, and, if the audience’s reaction to this scene was any indication, they are meant to be laughed at. The incredible specialization of professors in oddball topics is a damning picture of what universities can and do look like, especially when the claims these professors make (e.g. the optimistic American car crash) only hold because they come from an “authority.”

At the heart of both the novel and the movie is the question of the value of knowledge and what purpose it might serve in the modern world. Professor Jack Gladney, A.K.A. J.A.K. (Adam Driver), is at the forefront of the “pioneering” field of Hitler studies. At the same time, he struggles with Hitler’s mother tongue; he takes lessons with a German teacher who painstakingly teaches him the correct pronunciation of German vowels and consonants. Gladney’s theatricality as a professor—his tinted glasses, academic regalia, and his performative lectures—heightens the implied comedic satire of late 20th-century academia.

In Part II, however, when most of Jack’s children look to him for what to do as the Airborne Toxic Event forms, his knowledge serves him very little. Instead of preparing for the oncoming crisis, Jack believes everything will be fine—something he very quickly discovers is not the case. As the Airborne Toxic Event rapidly expands and the extent and danger of the crisis becomes more evident, Jack’s son Heinrich becomes an authoritative figure who people at the shelters look up to, regardless of whether his explanations for what is happening are accurate.

The acting across the board is excellent. While Jack and his wife Babette’s (Greta Gerwig) relationship initially comes across as stilted and forced, it later becomes clear that this is the nature of their relationship. Their struggle to keep their marriage alive is only exacerbated as Babette gradually sells her soul to the memory-altering drug Dylar. Special praise should also be directed at the actors playing the Gladneys’ children. Of those, Raffey Cassidy’s translucent-visor-hat-wearing Denise is a particular standout as she deftly portrays a daughter desperately trying to get her mother back.

I do have one minor gripe with the film and its creation of the “cinematic” villain. Babette’s dealer is everywhere: he winds his way through shots of the supermarket that Jack frequents and even shows up in a strange dream sequence. This plays into the idea that the villain holds together a part of the story’s narrative structure. The novel’s villain, however, is more banal; he’s an ordinary, shitty man dealing drugs in exchange for sex. There’s nothing mythic about him, and his anticlimactic reveal fits better into the novel’s postmodernist preoccupations: prodding at the narratives we tell ourselves.

Don DeLillo’s White Noise is a dense novel concerned with a multitude of topics: American academia, consumerism, progress, knowledge (are rats mammals or vermin?), and violence, among a host of others. Baumbach’s film triumphantly gathers pieces of these threads and delivers a surprisingly coherent picture of them all. I found it even funnier than the book; lines like “I lie to doctors all the time” and “Elvis was my Hitler” pack an additional punch in a crowded room full of other laughing moviegoers. White Noise doesn’t miss a beat.

Edited by Hannah Link

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