Ah, life is good. A shame we all have to leave it eventually.
So feels Jack Gladney, whose own life seems in tip-top shape.
He’s a well-respected professor at College on the Hill, a dynamic liberal arts school that draws some of the best, richest, kids that Ohio has to offer in 1984. Why, his Hitler Studies program is among the school’s most popular. No one knows more about the notorious German Fuhrer than good ol’ Jack.
Life at home might be even better. His fourth wife, Babette, seems like a real keeper. And their house full of kids (a mishmash of offspring from previous marriages) keeps things perpetually interesting.
But all is not as well as it seems. Denise, Babette’s teen daughter, has noticed that Mom has turned disturbingly forgetful. She takes showers even when her hair’s still wet from the last one. She sometimes forgets the names of the kids.
Denise suspects that it might be a side effect of the drug Babette is taking on the sly: not Babette’s blood-pressure pills, or the stress pills, or the energy pills, mind you, the pills that pretty much everyone takes. No, this pill, Dylar, is different. And even though Denise’s favorite book is a thick tome on medication, she hasn’t found a single mention of Dylar anywhere in it. “And it has four indexes,” she tells Jack.
When Denise tells Jack about her suspicions, Jack admits that this secret drug use is … concerning. But everyone has their little secrets, he reasons. He’ll talk with her about it. Eventually.
But soon—quite soon—he, Babette and the whole Gladney family will have far more pressing matters to deal with. Somewhere, out on a nearby road, a truck filled with flammable liquid is barreling toward a train filled with toxic chemicals.
Life is indeed good for the Gladneys. They’ve been on cruising speed for a while. But their family—indeed, the whole community—is about to hit some serious turbulence.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the sections below.]
White Noise is an absurdist, satirical comedy—not the sort of film where positives and negatives can be filtered through the same funnel as they would be in, say, a superhero flick. The movie’s own excesses and ridiculous turns are designed to point to society’s own absurdities. Its intention is to turn our eyes inward, at ourselves and at our culture, and help us see (through comedy) where we might just be acting a little silly. And on that level, it scores some points. But if you’re looking for a hero to pull someone out of a burning building or something, this ain’t that sort of flick.
That said, Jack and Babette do truly love and care about each other. They care about their four collective kids, too. Jack risks life and limb, for instance, to rescue his young daughter’s favorite stuffed bunny from a human stampede. And Babette tries to stop/rescue Jack when he makes a really terrible decision.
[Spoiler Warning] Jack and Babette likely save a man’s life, rushing him to the hospital after he’s been shot. Admittedly, they were to blame for the shooting, but still. It’s nice they tried to make up for their mistakes.
Denise tells her dad that the Dylar isn’t the only secret that Babette’s been keeping: She has a whole bunch of books on the occult that she’s hidden in the attic. Later, in an emergency shelter, Babette reads a story from the Weekly World News (a wildly sensationalist supermarket tabloid that was at its zenith in the 1980s). The story is about an institution that has used “hypnosis to induce hundreds of people to recall their previous life experiences as pyramid builders, exchange students and extraterrestrials.” We hear several mentions of UFOs and aliens elsewhere. Jack tells a class that Hitler’s mother died in front of a Christmas tree.
A man speculates that déjà vu is truly a premonition of the future: “Maybe when we die our first thought will be, ‘I know this feeling. I’ve been here before,’” says Murray Siskind, Jack’s friend and fellow professor. We see what appear to be some spectral visitations or premonitions. Babette admits to seeing a “holy Sikh man” in a neighboring city, and we see a devil-like looking face on a totem pole.
Near the end of the movie, Babette, Jack and another man rush to a hospital-like care facility located in a church. (The building is adorned outside with a neon cross, and the sanctuary inside is filled with hospital beds and nuns running hither and dither.) A painting of a Pope hanging out with John F. Kennedy in heaven hangs on a wall, and Babette asks if that reflects the current concept of heaven for the Catholic church. The nun is incensed: It’s beneath her to talk about heaven or angels or what she would characterize as any other religious tchotchke.
“Do you want to know what I believe?” she asks. “Or what I pretend to believe?”
She argues that it’s important to keep up a façade of belief, because if belief were to vanish entirely, the human race would also ultimately vanish. “If we didn’t pretend to believe these things, the world would collapse. … Hell is when no one believes.” She then exhorts that in these changing times, people should learn to believe in one another.
We see Jack and Babette engaged in foreplay of sorts. Jack plucks an erotic novel from the bottom of one of their drawers and prepares to read. Babette insists that it not include phrases such as a man “entering” a woman. “We’re not lobbies or elevators,” she says. (This thread of conversation returns later in the movie.) Later, the two lounge, fully clothed, in bed and talk about which one would be more bereft if the other died before hand.
This is the fourth marriage for both Jack and Babette. Murray, Jack’s professorial friend, may have a bit of a crush on Babette, talking about her amazing hair and allowing his gaze to rest longer on her than it perhaps strictly should.
A man is seen in an open shirt and boxers; in one scene, those boxers are partly pulled down, and we see a glimpse of pubic hair (though the context makes the image far from titillating). Jack also is shown in a doctor’s office with an open shirt. We hear some discussion about whether a crowd of people will turn “orgiastic” and sexually promiscuous. (One apparently does; we see a shirtless man halfway in a tent trying to put his tie on.) Newspaper ads feature women in bikinis.
[Spoiler Warning] We learn that, in order to get her mysterious drug, Babette has been sleeping with a man representing himself as a pharmaceutical exec. (The affair went on for several months, apparently, with Babette wearing a ski mask to the rendezvous point and during sex to hide her shame and to keep her from kissing the guy.) We see glimpses of the beginnings those interludes (or Jack’s imaginings of such interludes) in the reflection of old TV screens: Everyone’s clothed, though, and nothing more is shown than Babette slowly crawling across a bed.
At the outset of the film, we see Murray leading a college lecture on the art of cinematic car crashes. He argues that such crashes are actually a manifestation of a “wonderful, brimming spirit of innocence and fun.” For several minutes, we see a litany of these movie crashes—most of which involve some sort of flipping or falling or exploding.
“Look past the violence, I say!” Murray exhorts his students. And while this exhortation is meant to be taken as a joke by the people watching this film, White Noise plays on the fascination we have for violence and how it can often serve as a diversion for our own deepest fears.
A truck collides with a train, derailing most of the latter and surely killing, at the very least, the truck driver. The whole mess of truck-and-train cars explodes, sending a cloud of allegedly poisonous gas into the air. When people are told to evacuate, the panic results in more carnage. A car careens into a vehicle-clogged road, flips in the air and lands on several autos: Bloodied victims sit or lie beside the wreckage, with one person stretching out her bloodied hand to retrieve a phone.
People are jostled and knocked down during a stampede, and Jack has to comically dodge loads of vehicles and motorcycles racing without direction through that same stampede. (One man is not so lucky: He’s hit by a car and smashes against the windshield, though the low-speed collision doesn’t appear to have been fatal.)
The cloud of poisonous gas is said to cause a multitude of symptoms (which officials change and amend regularly), but most think that it’s definitely bad for you. When someone reports that he was exposed to the gas for two-and-a-half minutes, he’s told that it’s definitely serious. How serious? “We’ll know more in 15 years,” the “expert” tells the victim. The stuff stays toxic for 30 years, so if the victim’s still alive in half that time, they’ll be able to tell him more authoritatively what it’s doing to him.
That same expert is wearing an armband indicating that he’s taking part in a simulation—and that he and his fellow emergency workers are using this very real event as “practice” for an upcoming simulation. When asked how it’s going, the expert laments that the bodies aren’t quite laid out as they would be in an actual simulation, but “you have to make allowances for the fact that everything you see tonight is real.”
On a news program, we see a plane crash into the ground several times. (When Jack suggests that his children turn their attention to something else, they angrily tell him no.) Later, Jack and his professorial friends talk about the universal appeal of crash footage. We hear that a professor dies in a surfing accident.
We hear lots of talk about death and its nature. Someone seems to lose a bit of skin on her cheek.
[Spoiler Warning] Someone shoots another character else twice in the gut, then puts the gun in the hand of the victim, whom the shooter presumes is dead. He’s not: He pulls the trigger and shoots the shooter and a woman standing behind him (via ricochet). We see blood as a part of all three wounds.
One f-word, three s-words and a variety of other profanities, including “a–,” “b–ch,” “crap” and “p-ss.” God’s name is misused once.
We see someone smoke a cigarette and someone else light up a small cigarillo. We learn that Babette used to smoke.
There’s some suggestion that Babette and pert near everyone else is taking plenty of prescription medication to solve various woes, but the most important drug we hear about is Dylar. It’s purpose is unknown throughout most of the movie, but it’s clear that Babette is taking it and she is lying about it.
Later, we see a man who claims to eat the pills “like candy,” but given the state of his person and his motel room, it doesn’t seem like it’s done him any favors.
We’re told many of the symptoms that the toxic black cloud supposedly causes. At one point it’s said to cause vomiting before the experts on the radio take it back. When Denise runs out of dining room to throw up, her brother, Heinrich, mocks her for experiencing “outdated symptoms.”
Someone apparently defecates in front of another guy. (He sits on the toilet and reaches for some toilet paper, though we don’t really see or hear anything else.) Professors talk wistfully about their experiences urinating in sinks. One claims that he’s urinated in sinks “across North America.” Another asks if anyone’s experienced the thrill of a partner peeling off their sunburned skin. One says yes—adding that the partner was topless and it was one of the two or three greatest experiences he’s ever had.
Characters lie and mislead. We hear that Californians, having invented the concept of lifestyle, deserve whatever they have coming to them. We’re told that “family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation,” and indeed many lies or false comforts are told in Jack and Babette’s family.
Most of the characters in White Noise—and, of course, the movie itself—are preoccupied with death. Someone wonders whether death is itself simply a horrible, ongoing silence. We can infer that the movie’s title is really about all the metaphorical whistling we do in the dark.
Crowds are said to distract us from death, because at least there we won’t die alone. Supermarkets are filled with colorful diversions—things we can buy and eat that might make us feel less existential dread for a time. The movie suggests that faith itself is a diversion—something that will allow us to believe that death isn’t the end instead of the gaping abyss of nothingness that the movie imagines it to be.
White Noise is based on Don DeLillo’s much-praised, much-studied novel of the same name—a book so inscrutable that even the film’s publicity reminds us that it was thought to be “unfilmable.” Director Noah Baumbach dealt with the book’s prickly nature by keeping (in the makers’ estimation) the most important insight from DeLillo’s work: “its depiction of modern life as a series of newfangled distractions and defenses against the eternal, primitive fear of death,” according to a publicity essay by Dennis Lim.
For Christians—at least for those who truly believe, and don’t just to pretend to believe, as the movie’s nuns bluntly put it—that leaves White Noise with little appeal. Whatever existential dread we may sometimes feel is leavened by the knowledge that we do not die, but through Christ have eternal life. “O death, where is your victory?” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:55. “O death, where is your sting?”
Death stings the unbelievers in White Noise, and the movie’s content might sting its viewers. Admittedly, the film’s issues don’t seem to warrant the R-rating, but those issues are still significant enough. We hear some foul language, including the f-word. We see violence and blood. Sex is a big part of the plot.
But perhaps White Noise’s biggest issue is a more subtle one—the backhanded compliment it pays to faith. Belief is important, it says. Even if there’s nothing really to believe in, it adds.
And as such, I believe this film warrants all sorts of caution. White Noise is just more noise (as it itself might even admit)—sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.