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White Noise   D+

Universal Pictures / Gold Circle Films

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Geoffrey Sax
Writer: Niall Johnson
Cast: Michael Keaton, Deborah Kara Unger, Chandra West, Ian McNeice, Sarah Strange, Nicholas Elia, Mike Dopud.

Review by Rob Vaux

Basing a movie on an obscure supernatural phenomenon is all well and good, but when that movie is as poorly developed as White Noise, it can cause problems. Clarity and perceptiveness elude it, despite some flailing lunges at them, and its would-be thriller credentials are as creaky as a condemned roof. But mainly, it's the central conceit that dooms it: an interesting idea pulled apart by the expediencies of a grimly formulaic plot.

The idea in question is Electronic Voice Phenomenon (or EVP), a process by which the static of radios and other electronic equipment serves as a conduit to the land of the dead. It found its great cinematic expression in Poltergeist, with Heather O'Rourke pressing her hands against the family TV. White Noise attempts to spin that iconic image out over an hour and 40 minutes, a daunting challenge that it clearly can't meet. We're presented with architect Jonathan Rivers (Michael Keaton), a grieving widower whose way-too-young-for-him wife (Chandra West) has been killed in an apparent accident. But in the midst of his grief, he's approached by a wild-eyed stranger (Ian McNeice) who claims that the late Mrs. Rivers has spoken to him through -- dramatic pause -- white noise. Soon enough, Rivers is dancing to his Fox Mulder tune: buying up multiple TV screens and freaking out his young son (Nicholas Elia) by recording hour upon hour of fuzzy, headache-inducing snow.

For lunatic intensity, you can't go wrong with Keaton, whose performance here suggests a man keeping a tight rein on himself lest he go completely off the deep end. Director Geoffrey Sax permits some reasonably nice touches to the character, such as a love for his son despite his growing obsession, and the fact that his belief is fueled by the overpowering need to see his wife again. There's plausibility to Rivers' domestic situation -- buoyed by the fact that Elia doesn't have to do the Creepy Precognizant routine generally required of child actors in films like this. But when ominous shadows start showing up on the monitors, and palm readers make dark mutterings about playing with fire, White Noise strips away even these modest pleasures. The scares come mainly from painfully long silences punctuated by sudden shocks: the cinematic equivalent of bursting an inflated bag behind your ear. Between them is a lot of dead space -- inert scenes in which the characters either stare painfully into the distance or engage in somnambulistic plot exposition designed to lurch the storyline forward. As the film goes on, it withdraws into unconvincing twists centered on whoever (or whatever) Rivers is trying to reach through his television screens. If it were more effective, White Noise may have attained a junk-food entertainment level, but it takes itself too seriously to revel in its ludicrous side. With its story coming out in such awkward fits and starts, there's little reason to cut it much slack.

Moreover, while White Noise apparently depicts the phenomenon of EVP accurately, its presentation raises far too many logistical questions (most of which reveal key plot points and prevent my discussing them here). EVP is little known within the mainstream, and yet White Noise is too cursory in its development to give us a real sense of how it works. The ground rules are assumed rather than stated, leaving a lot of confusion in their wake. And one glaring issue rises again and again, like the spectres on Rivers' screen: if ghosts need TV static to communicate with us, then why should we fear a more direct intrusion? And if they can assert themselves directly, then why bother with hazy images in the TV fuzz? A better thriller would have a real answer for us... or at least one that didn't leave us with the confused-dog look on our faces. White Noise simply needed an A-list effort behind it, one that could see its concept through and not leave it stranded in the ash heap of January. Sadly, such is not its fate; like its supernatural interlopers, it's too much static and not enough sound.

Review published 01.06.2005.

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