White Noise Review, Ideas, Meaning


Warning: Possible plot spoilers below

Recently Jim posted the folowing quote on his blog that I would like to use as the reference point for my review of White Noise:

Sadness is an inevitable ubiquitous element of human life: we are beings who want to live in a world that constantly threatens us with death or that reminds us of death, if not literally then symbolically, through loss and aging and disappointment. And to me, a healthy life has to integrate sadness. Only by integrating sadness can we resist the temptations of fleeing from it in ways that are destructive to others or ourselves." - New York playwright Christopher Shinn, quoted in this piece in the Orange County Weekly by Cornel Bonca.

Bonca accurately, if not a bit pretentiously, characterizes the fundamental basis of all drama or tragedy - the proximity of death and how the living deal (or don’t deal) with it. The new Geoffry Sax film White Noise is another example whereby a visit into the supernatural serves to underscore the truth stated by Bonca above.

In White Noise we are introduced to John Rivers, an architect living in (what appears to be) Toronto ( Note to Canada - enough with the brushed metal as architectural element already! ). With freshly-pregnant wife and son (by another woman) leading “The Perfect Life.”

{ …beep …. beep ….beep. it’s a telegraph, sir, things are about to go downhill }


his wife dies and her body washes up days later by an old pier on the water.

We are sad. John is sad.

John is soon contacted by an aficionado of “EVP” - within the narrative world of White Noise, a world that is like our aniseptic, scientific world, we learn that the dead can leave traces of their voices and likeness on the electromagnetically sensitive recording media of our modern times. This phenomenon, EVP (electronic voice phenomenon), allows a living person to commune with the dead.

Now this is an interesting setup, it’s a re-hash of the Faustian bargain: man, ever hungry for forbidden power and knowledge makes the deal with the man at the crossroads who casts no shadow (Robert Johnson mythos, Faust, many-a Lovecraft protagonist) and begins to experience the exultation of this power / knowledge.

In White Noise, Johnathan is able to communicate with his deceased wife via EVP and thus the Faustian bargain takes its inevitable turn into the “unintended consequences” (see “The Monkey’s Paw”) realm. It’s not long before his monkey’s paw hobby starts doing its corrupting work - compelling Johnathan to choose between living in an artificial world (communing with the dead with this high-tech Ouija board) or doing the hard work of “getting over it”.

Now, this could have been a very interesting bit of drama - you must overcome loss by moving beyond, by growing, by challenging - not by seeking a spiritual salve in the disembodied voices from the beyond. Everyone who endures the death of a loved one (“To love is to bury” sayeth the Cowboy Junkies) faces flights of fancy into the supernatural and then faces the intractable truth of mortality. The movie works in this general direction but then…then….then….

It completely blows it

{…spoilers below, you may want to cut out if you plan on seeing this…}

… … … … … … …

The story blows it because all of a sudden the menacing spirits mixed in on the tapes solidify and attack John.

Now wait, we were in a scientific world, not the horror-worlds of Nightmare on Elm Street or Poltergeist where we accept that supernatural menace can physically hurt us – no, EVP was a phenomenon of our “modern” world - an unintended and potentially menacing side effect from the beyond. They don’t physically hurt us, they conquer us from our psyche out (much scarier!) - what the hell is this curve ball!?

The screenwriters totally messed this up! They had all the set-ups for an exploration of the curse of the Faustian bargain and they blew it. Instead of John’s unraveling into madness courtesy of his obsession with EVP or his personal triumph over this crutch - but instead the screenwriters get lazy and basically give up.

This is my principal reason for why White Noise was a bad movie. There were other reasons (too many driving scene shots, lackluster dialog for a performer of Keaton’s talent, etc.) but it’s a real loser.

I had been pretty excited about EVP given some of the mention it got in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (i liked the parallelism BTW, while Cayce examines internet footage pixel by pixel to discover its author, her mother listens to tape, inch by inch, listening for her husband who perished in the Twin Towers on September the 11th). I thought it could be an interesting way of re-interpreting a horror-tale. The writing betrays that the easiest 80% of screenwriting was done, but the 20% in which you make a tight and powerful presentation was phoned-in.

Rating: **

I’ve noticed that many of the message boards are abuzz with “what was the ending about” (besides lazy screenwriting) - here it is.

John discovers EVP. John becomes obsessed with EVP. The three shadows in the footage are the Greek conceptions of the fates. The Fates, in this movie, turn out to be badasses. The fates manipulate humans as they need to so as to do their work (i.e. they implement the construction worker as tool of the ending of lives). John, via EVP, starts meddling (see, this is a Greek story with Greek characters, mortals are always warned about meddling with the affairs of the immortal, but their hubris prevents them from taking the right course) and this pisses the Fates off to no end and finally they personally act to keep their function working as it ought (it’s very similar to the Gaiman conception of The Endless - Death kills you because she has to and it’s the way things work, nothing personal). Johnathan gets killed for trying to get too close to the immortal concerns….but along the way still does their work by bringing about the death of the construction man murderer. Thus, you cannot beat the inevitability of the fates, you must accept you are their pawn (what did John brace the door of Sarah (Debra Kara Unger) ’s door open with? A silver pawn.)