White Noise

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 05/17/05 15:49:12

"Oh, Michael Keaton, you're better than this. What gives?"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

You know that game where somebody starts off telling a story, then they stop, hand the story off to someone else, who tells a little more, only it’s a little bit different, and then they pass it off, and so on and so on, and in the end you’ve got a story that kinda makes sense in its own patchwork way? That’s “White Noise.” At its core is a fairly interesting premise - yet it’s mangled by a storyline that’s alternately incoherent, sloppy, directionless, and devoid of logic. It’s as if twenty people wrote a few minutes here, a few minutes there, and they glued it together the best they could.

Don’t get me wrong - a horror movie can work wonders without a coherent story or without workable logic. Why, just earlier this week I watched the Japanese chiller “Infection,” in which too little is explained and too much is left in the realm of what-the-hell? But that movie works - holy crap, does it work - because it’s so effective on its basic level of horror that cohesion becomes unnecessary. “White Noise,” on the other hand, is more of a character-driven thriller, so much so that it borders on plain drama; like the Kevin Costner ghost pic “Dragonfly,” the film “White Noise” most closely resembles, this one’s driven too much by story to allow for story gaps and logic holes.

Now, I wanted to like this one. I really, really did. And for a while, it was working. True, it was mired under clichés and predictable moments (consider the opening scene, in which we meet the all-too-perfect happy family - anyone not able to guess where this scene is headed has not seen enough movies), but it was making up for the weaker moments with strong performances by Michael Keaton and Deborah Kara Unger, and with the promise of solid chills ahead. The performances remain strong throughout; the solid chills, however, that’s a promise broken.

The story. Keaton plays Jonathan Rivers, whose wife takes a nasty spill one day and drowns. Which would be bad enough, except that before her body is found, there’s a month or so where she’s merely “missing,” upping the emotional stakes and allowing for some halfway decent drama (or, at least, for Keaton to provide drama where the script does not). Into Jonathan’s life waddles the mysteriously British Raymond Price (Ian McNeice), who informs the widower that his dead wife’s been contacting him for a few days.

Which is how we get to the gimmick of the picture: Electronic Voice Phenomenon, or EVP. EVP works this way: when you tune your TV or radio to an empty channel, ghosts will use the static to contact you. We’re told, through the movie’s opening and closing credits, as well as its marketing campaign, that EVP is a “real” phenomenon, and indeed, there are EVP clubs across the globe. And without getting into a discussion over how grieving, depressed, lonely souls can stretch their imaginations to interpret random bursts of static as spoken words (if you’ll buy that as real, then may I interest you in this bridge?), let’s just say it makes a fine idea for a horror movie, provided that you don’t spend have that movie trying to sell the audience on the importance and reality of EVP. (Which is what “White Noise” does, clumsily.)

Again, even though all of this was coming off the screen in an awkward manner (Jonathan has a son whose in-and-out appearances in the storyline are distractingly illogical, making me think that screenwriter Niall Johnson wanted the lead to have a child but did not know what to do beyond that idea), I kept giving it the benefit of the doubt. Keaton was doing a fine job handling his character’s growing obsession with his wife’s ghost, and the bit in the story where we’re introduced to potentially deadly spirits showed some potential. Surely, things’ll pick up, right? Right?

No, not really. “White Noise” stumbles along, for a while trying to be another “Sixth Sense” - Jonathan becomes a crusader, passing along received messages from beyond to strangers - or, again, “Dragonfly” - Jonathan begins to piece together clues coming from the Other Side, etc. Nothing comfortably fits in any of this, yet it all feels like it’s leading, well, somewhere.

So by the time we get to that somewhere, where it’s revealed that the movie has no clue how to wrap itself up (and thus gives us a half-assed ending that alternates between confounding and dull), we begin to feel like chumps taken for a ride. Here we are, having stuck through all those weak jump-scares and limp mysteries, only to arrive here, in a finale that the filmmakers didn’t even bother to think through. It’s a mess of an ending that only reinforces the weaknesses of everything that came before it.

What “White Noise” is, ultimately, is a movie in desperate need of a rewrite. Scenes went unenlightened, plot points left unanswered, cheap thrills went unimproved. There’s a good story hiding somewhere in here, but going with an unfinished draft, the filmmakers leave it hidden for good.

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