White Noise is about watching static. Not just any static, but static through which dead people chatter at living people. In order to enlist your interest in this enterprise, which, even for its basis in real experiences, as emphasized in the film’s promotional materials, it gives you a central character who wants very much to watch this static.
That would be John Rivers (Michael Keaton), who starts off the film looking comfortable, and not particularly interested in static. He and his second wife, lovely Anna (Chandra West), live in a fabulous, simultaneously spacious and acutely angled house (he’s an architect in Washington state, she’s an “international author,” whatever that means) and share a sincere affection for one another, as well as for John’s son Mikey (Nicholas Elia), product of a previous marriage, now living with them. Their morning routine is sweet and mutually supportive—he’s headed to his huge firm downtown, she’s going to check the cover design for her latest novel)—and only briefly interrupted by Anna’s announcement: she’s pregnant.
Cue the death knell.
White Noise falls into that least-likely-to-succeed genre, the horror film released in winter. It’s good-looking and nonsensical, beginning with a vaguely creepy set of effects (phones ringing, lights flickering, clocks ticking), then falls apart swiftly and tepidly. All this is attributed to EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon), that is, the dead’s communications with the living through recordable audio and video transmissions—the film doesn’t quite muster interest in characters on either side of the divide.
As if he’s got a clue, John doesn’t leap immediately into the EVP business. He needs to be convinced, and Anna’s ostensible persistence is apparently all too eager to do that work. She calls him from her cell (static on her end) and flicks the lights at 2:30am, the hour of her mysterious death. In fact, her death was so mysterious that local authorities didn’t even know she was dead for weeks, as they sought the body and eventually pieced together an “accident” scenario to explain her washing up on a shore miles from where her car is discovered. This means that John spends some wrenching hours and days imagining she’s not dead—all the while observed increasingly critically by his ex-wife (Sarah Strange) and young son, and maybe a person or two at the office; but really, the film seems intent on isolating John, perhaps to indicate his increasing immersion into self, or perhaps to cut down on expensive speaking parts.
When at last John does bury Anna (in one of those graveyard scenes where the camera shoots from overhead to emphasize the vast space of loss and grief that John, at least, is feeling), he goes to visit Raymond (Ian McNeice), whose son was killed years ago, and who now channels his grief and frustration into the pursuit EVP. He claims to have received a message from Anna, and John is all too ready to pick his way through Raymond’s cluttered home, filled with sophisticated recording equipment and boxes of files, notes he’s taken, based on the nearly indecipherable communications he’s received from “beyond” (these range from nice hellos to relatives to the outright nasty “get out!” sort of warnings typically hurled at those pesky humans who can’t leave the dead alone; see also: Poltergeist, Amityville Horror, The Ring.)
Undeterred, John and Raymond pursue Anna’s recordable traces, John in part encouraged by another of Raymond’s “clients,” the perpetually sorrowful book store owner Sarah (played, appropriately, by the perpetually sorrowful Deborah Kara Unger). As she’s had her own experience with contacting a dead person, she’s willing to support John’s increasing obsession with hearing Anna. He buys a pile of expensive equipment, ignoring his preternaturally patient child in order to watch all that static on his screen (why do they have so many tvs, wonders cute little Mikey; daddy explains, so they can both watch their own “shows” at the same time. The trouble is, Mikey’s shows—ghost cartoons, the local news—are a lot more interesting than John’s. Still, the film does its best to immerse you in John’s experience, which means looking at much (inherently boring) static.
To oblige your immersion, the movie has to rig its logic, which means removing any characters who might insert some into the proceedings off to the sidelines—by death or other means. One Detective Smits (Mike Dopud) questions John’s strange involvements in a series of fatalities, but he’s never a factor in how events unfold. He’s an afterthought, always late on the scene and never comprehending what’s happening. And in this last, he’s something of an audience stand-in; you might also be feeling stranded as the film makes less and less sense, during its efforts to end itself.
While it’s not hard to predict the broad strokes of Niall Johnson’s script—the dead wife, the haunted husband, the fatal consequences of his “meddling”—the particular turns John takes as a result of his obsession with reaching out to Anna are slightly less obvious. But it’s clear soon that the film has dug (or written) itself into a rather large logical hole from which there is no convincing emergence. At the same time, Geoffrey Sax (an erstwhile Dr. Who director) and cinematographer Chris Seager make terrific use of White Noise‘s thematic interest in static. To indicate John’s simultaneous loss of self and slide into self, the film has him literally scritch off the screen, transformed into the very static he can’t not watch. It’s a striking effect, and gestures toward critiquing the culture that invests in such reflective abstraction and emptiness. Indeed, it almost indicts your desire to see something in nothing.
But White Noise doesn’t actually look too deeply into its premise. Instead, it jerry-rigs a climax and a bit of a sequel-supposing last shot, without much heart in either. And you’re left feeling the void at its center.