Welcome to our Colossus Movie Guide for Netflix’s White Noise. This guide contains everything you need to understand the film. Dive into our detailed library of content, covering key aspects of the movie. We encourage your comments to help us create the best possible guide. Thank you!
-Chris & Travis
What is White Noise about?
White Noise is a meditation on mortality, specifically the fear of death. It’s something people deal with privately, in their own ways. This fear of death is the narrative motivation for the airborne toxic event. Instead of mortality simply being an issue discussed by Jack and Babette, it becomes a very front-of-mind topic for an entire Ohio town. We see how death motivates a large group of people. The way in which they come together. And the selfish things they do that harm others. Part of the conversation turns to how we distract ourselves from thinking about mortality. Whether that’s through a pill, or work, an attachment to consumerism, or simply enjoying the highs of life while they’re available to us.
Table of Contents
Cast of White Noise
- Jack Gladney – Adam Driver
- Babette Gladney – Greta Gerwig
- Denise Gladney – Raffey Cassidy
- Heinrich Gladney – Sam Nivola
- Steffie Gladney – May Novila
- Wilder Gladney – Henry Moore/Dean Moore
- Murray Siskind – Don Cheadle
- Mr. Gray – Lars Eidinger
- Winnie Richards – Jodie Turner-Smith
- Elliot Lasher – André Benjamin
- Based on – White Noise by Don DeLillo
- Written by – Noah Baumbach
- Directed by – Noah Baumbach
Why is the movie called White Noise?
The term “white noise” has a few meanings. There’s the more scientific application that involves sound waves of varying frequencies commingling into a singular sound that’s often associated with static or the whirling of a fan. But it’s also used to describe background noise that’s constant and unvarying. So if you’re in a mall food court, you probably notice the “white noise” of all the people talking. Or if you stand on a street corner in New York City during the middle of the day, there’s the white noise of traffic. You could even get more poetic with it and describe the 24-hour news cycle as the white noise of 21st century living.
With regard to what we see in the movie, the specter of death, knowledge of our own mortality, could be viewed as a kind of white noise. It’s a constant hum that’s in the back of our heads. “I will die one day. I will no longer exist. The world will go on without me.” This lines up with the Thanatophobia that drives both Jack and Babette.
There’s also an emphasis on consumerism and commercialism. The act of buying things, of ownership and accumulation, has become a white noise that can distract us from all the thoughts of mortality. In that way, the white noise is something we’re looking for that would drown out the voice in our head that’s worried about annihilation.
The movie is based on a Don DeLillo novel of the same name. And in the novel, we get one direct reference to “white noise” followed by some poetic elaboration. It happens during the showdown with Mr. Gray (real name William Mink), in the motel room. Jack shouts “Plunging aircraft” and watches as Mink suffers from a Dylar-induced trip, hallucinating he’s actually in a plunging aircraft.
I took another step toward the middle of the room. As the TV picture jumped, wobbled, caught itself in snarls, Mink appeared to grow more vivid. The precise nature of events. Things in their actual state. Eventually he worked himself out of the deep fold, rising nicely, sharply outlined against the busy air. White noise everywhere.
“Containing iron, niacin, and riboflavin, I learned my English in airplanes. It’s the international language of aviation. Why are you here, white man?”
“You are very white, you know that?”
“It’s because I’m dying.”
“This stuff fix you up.”
“I’ll still die.”
“But it won’t matter, which comes to the same thing. Some of these playful dolphins have been equipped with radio transmitters. Their far-flung wanderings may tell us things.”
I continued to advance in consciousness. Things glowed, a secret life rising out of them. Water struck the roof in elongated orbs, splashing drams. I knew for the first time what rain really was. I knew what wet was. I understood the neurochemistry of my brain, the meaning of dreams (the waste material of premonitions). Great stuff everywhere, racing through the room, racing slowly. A richness, a density. I believed everything. I was a Buddhist, a Jain, a Duck River Baptist. My only sadness was Babette, having to kiss a scooped-out face.
He put his hands over his crotch, tried to fit himself under the toilet tank, behind the bowl. The intensity of the noise in the room was the same at all frequencies. Sound all around. I took out the Zumwalt. Great and nameless emotions thudded on my chest. I knew who I was in the network of meanings. Water fell to earth in drops, causing surfaces to gleam. I saw things new.
I fired the gun, the weapon, the pistol, the firearm, the automatic. The sound snowballed in the white room, adding on reflected waves.
Notice how much “white” comes up. The air is busy because Jack’s senses are heightened by the drama of what he’s about to do. It’s created a degree of static in the air. The world itself is charged. But then Jack himself is described as this “white man”, pale because he’s dying after exposure to the airborne toxic event. So he’s there to kill Mr. Gray/Mink, but he’s also dying, and both involve “white”. This is the “show don’t tell” way of associating the idea of “white noise” with death. Which also plays into the idea of the Dylar eliminating the fear of death. Which is why Mink says “But it won’t matter, which comes to the same thing.” Death will be reduced to a static in the background of Jack’s life, rather than something unbearably loud.
The paragraph where “things glowed” and he “knew for the first time what rain really was” is just a continuation of the line about “White noise everywhere.” The presence of death in the room intensifies everything else. The literal white noise is a mixture of frequencies, and Jack describes a mixture of beliefs. Buddhism, Jainism, Baptism. It’s the poetic leap from the literal to the metaphorical/existential. But DeLillo comes back to the literal with that description of “the intensity of the noise in the room was the same at all frequencies. Sound all around.” It’s sound and visuals. Sound and visuals and belief. Sound and visuals and belief and emotions. All of these colliding into an existential static that’s akin to a rebirth.
Jack shoots Mink. But then decides to save him. Opting for life over death. For acceptance over denial
Similar things happen in the movie version. There’s a moment when the TV scrambles into static, into that visual white noise. And the very end is Jack and Babette deciding to focus on their life together and enjoy whatever time they have rather than worry about their personal extinctions.
In an article for Collider, Drew Klopper notes a conversation between Jack and Babette that doesn’t cite directly the words “white noise” but is a slant acknowledgement.
In the book and film, the concept of white noise is also used to describe the unknown nature of death which is focused as the core of Jack and Babette’s living torment. Jack posits, “What if death is nothing but sound?” Babette replies, “Electrical noise.” Continuing his fear-induced babbling, Jack says, “You hear it forever. Sound all around. How awful.” In a final thought, Babette brings it all back to the title by uttering, “Uniform, white.”
That dialogue makes a direct connection to the concept of white noise as a euphemism for death. Which leads to an ironic tension. Life is also quite full of sound. So it’s not the sound that’s the problem. In fact, with death, it’s the silence. Speculation that there’s sound, even one as bland as white noise, shows that continued uneasiness with the truth of finality. It’s the exact kind of denial the characters grapple with throughout the movie.
The themes and meaning of White Noise
Thanatophobia aka fear of death
The novel version of White Noise has the space to develop a number of themes, but the film focuses on one primary topic: death. Both Jack and Babette share an intense fear of death. We see how Jack has dreams that imply the presence of death. And Babette ends up joining the Dylar test to quell her own terror.
We can look at the structure for further elaboration. The first act introduces us to Jack’s day to day life. His family. His career as a professor of Hitler studies. His grocery shopping experience. Everything is familiarly Americana. Death is nothing more than an idea far away on the horizon. Even then, it plagues Jack and Babette like a kind of white noise that’s there in the background.
Then the airborne toxic event happens. Death is now something very immediate, if still hard to grasp. The danger is real but not tangible. Jack simply gets out of the car for a couple minutes to pump gas. That’s enough to stricken him with a terminal illness. But we see how this fear of death hits an entire population. The whole town has to come face to face with the reality that they may die if they don’t do something. And even if they take action—it can still go wrong. The storm ends up as this almost surreal embodiment of mortality. Hovering around us. Affecting the world around us.
And then we get into the aftermath. What does Jack do now that he’s sick? Before, death was just a concept. Then it was a temporary, public event. Now, it’s real and personal. How does that affect him? Having that knowledge, what does he do with his time? Initially, he seeks to find a way out of it. The Dylar. Maybe that will help? But he decides to forgo the use of Dylar in order to punish its creator, Mr. Gray, for sleeping with Babette. Through the showdown with Mr. Gray, Jack confronts death. And comes out the otherside with a better appreciation for life. Instead of fearing what’s to come, he decides to appreciate all that’s left.
Commercialism and consumerism via the A&P supermarket, Hitler, and Elvis
This theme isn’t as well-developed in the movie as it is in the novel. But it’s meaningful that we go from the chaos and mortality of the airborne toxic event to suddenly being back in the grocery store. Murray walks with Jack and says, “It’s comforting to know the supermarket hasn’t changed since the toxic event. In fact, the supermarket has only gotten better.” That’s not just pointed, it’s absurd. It shows the way people seek comfort and reinforcement from the act of consuming. It’s a distraction. It’s another form of white noise, one that keeps us distracted from our fears. Whether that’s fear of death or some other existential worry. We self-soothe via television, movies, books, video games, by going to malls, to shopping centers, to grocery stores. Consuming becomes a way to define our existence. I saw this. I bought this. I have this. I exist.
It’s the same with Jack studying Hitler and Murray Siskind studying Elvis. Their expertise in the history of Hitler and the pop culture of Elvis doesn’t matter. It’s the microcosms they can build around such zeitgeist-prodding topics. These pocket-dimensions serve to distract in the exact same way at the A&P and consumerism. We’ve seen something similar in the 21st century, as stan culture has become a powerful subject, with many people willingly committing their time, attention, and efforts in the support of a celebrity, brand, or culture. By doing so, people can escape from their reality, which is especially comforting if they’re stressed, worried, overwhelmed, or even just lonely. Jack and Murray used it to feel alive and empowered in way the they otherwise never did or could.
The Dylar drug and medication
Dylar is not a real drug. Yet. DeLillo likes to think ahead and capture aspects of the future. And with the rise of antidepressants and other mental health medications throughout the 70s and 80s, it made sense that he would speculate on where the science would go, could go, and should go. That’s not to say that White Noise, in novel and movie form, is anti-medication. It’s not. But the story seems to be making a point that medicine doesn’t always have a solution. Even if Dylar worked, what’s your quality of life? And if such a drug could exist, what would the cost be? Not just the monetary cost. Look at what Mr. Gray had Babette do for the drug. She sleeps with him for it. Which may seem ridiculous to some people. Yet that’s the one-sided nature of a situation that involves life and death. And it’s something we see reflected in the absurd prices of modern health care.
In 2021, NPR published a story called “A Hospital Charged More than $700 For Each Push of Medicine Through Her IV”.
After a long wait in the emergency room of Penrose Hospital, Claire received morphine and an anti-nausea medication delivered through an IV. She also underwent a CT scan of her abdomen and a series of tests.
Total Bill: $18,735.93, including two $722.50 fees for a nurse to “push” drugs into her IV, a process that takes seconds. Anthem’s negotiated charges were $6,999 for the total treatment. Anthem paid $5,578.30, and the Lang-Rees owed $1270.45 to the hospital, plus additional bills for radiologists and other care.
That was simply for stomach pain that ended up being a ruptured cyst. What about for something far more serious?
Also in 2021, Newsweek published an article titled, “Woman’s Insane Hospital Bill Goes Viral on Twitter”.
On Sunday, [Marisa] Kabas shared a photo of her recent hospital bill with the caption, “How is this country real.” The bill shows she was charged close to half a million dollars before insurance for surgery to remove fibrous tumor cells from a particularly fragile region of the brain. … Specifically, Kabas’s care—her surgery plus her hospital stay—cost an eye-popping, jaw-dropping $476,025.98. While her insurance mercifully covered $475,365.98 of the bill, she was on the hook for the remaining $660, much to her frustration. “I pay $1,100 per month for this insurance. If you think I should still have to pay an additional $660 for surgery, you have brain worms,” she wrote in a follow-up tweet.
When it comes to health care, companies can charge exorbitant amounts and, in most cases, there’s nothing to be done other than to pay it. For many, this becomes debt that acts as a cancer to the rest of their life.
While it’s unlikely DeLillo had exactly this in mind when he wrote White Noise, Noah Baumbach would be fully aware of what’s happened in the health care industry. Meaning that Dylar in the 2022 film version of White Noise feels very much a commentary on the way the health care industry can take advantage of people desperate for help. And that extends behind doctors and hospitals and goes directly into the supplement industry and the un-proven promises many supplements make about improving cognition, fertility, heart health, libido, blood flow, strength, etc. They profit off the hope people have to improve these things with the ease of a glass of water and a pill.
The ending of White Noise explained
The end of White Noise has three main scenes. There’s the Jack confronting Mr. Gray. There’s Jack and Babette at the nun hospital. And lastly the entire Gladney family shops together at A&P.
In the confrontation with Mr. Gray, Jack shows up as someone interested in purchasing Dylar. But his real motive is revenge for Gray extorting Babaette for intimacy. Gray is drugged out on Dylar. Eventually, Jack shoots Gray then begins to stage it as Gray committing an act of self-harm. Babette shows up. Just then, Mr. Gray comes to. He’s injured but not dead. He fires at Jack and the bullet grazes both Jack and Babette. Instead of finishing Gray off, they decide it’s best to save him. In his Dylar riddled state, Gray believes it when Jack tells them he shot himself.
At the nun hospital, the nuns are German and atheist. Jack and Babette show an intense attraction to one another. Jack’s even entertained by Mr. Gray’s ramblings. Sister Hermann Marie lectures the couple about Heaven. Belief and nonbelief. What death is and isn’t. Hermann Marie says:
Do you want to know what I believe? Or what I pretend to believe? You come in from the street, married, dragging a body by the foot, and talk about angels that live in the sky. Get out from here. Anyone who comes in here talking about angels is a numbskull. Show me an angel. Please. I want to see one. Show me a saint. Give me one hair from the body of a saint. It is our task in the world to believe in things no one else believes. If we abandon such beliefs, the human race would die out. That is why we are here. A tiny minority. If we didn’t pretend to believe these things the world would collapse! Hell is when no one believes. We pray. Lighting candles,asking statues for good health and long life. But not for long. You will lose your believers. So maybe you should try to believe in each other.
The couple then reconciles. As the morning light pours through the church window onto them.
Back home, life resumes. It’s a day like any other. Being out of milk, the whole family goes to the grocery store, part of the process of inventing hope. A large-scale dance scene plays out in the store.
Mostly everything in White Noise comes back to the theme of death and fear of death and the ways in which we self-soothe. The end of the movie is no different. When Jack goes to Mr. Gray, he’s essentially having a showdown with an embodiment of death. He’s confronting the man who slept with his wife. But a larger existential enemy. He needs the confrontation to progress. Otherwise he’d be consumed by the dread that’s eating at him. Action over thought. Deed over idea.
But the event goes south. The wounds aren’t fatal and Mr. Gray fires back. The bullet that hits Jack and Babette serves as a bit of a wakeup call. Like the airborne toxic event, this is a brush with their own mortality. They came this close to dying. Which, of course, makes everything else all the sweeter. Richer. Beautiful. Even Mr. Gray. Jack’s anger towards him melts away. The divide that had grown between Jack and Babette is gone. Things can begin again.
And where better for an existential rebirth than a church? Sister Marie’s speech is derived from the book but modified. There’s a more deliberate back and forth between her and Jack but much of the lines are the same. The key part I’ll add is: Someone must appear to believe. Our lives are no less serious than if we progressed real faith, real belief. As belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believe. Wild-eye men in caves. Nuns in black. Monks who do not speak. We are left to believe. Fools, children. Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure that they are right not to believe but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen, rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for good health, long life.
The conversation actually devolves from there. Instead of being this inspiring thing that ends with the nun telling Jack and Babette to believe in each other, the nun speaks a furious German that Jack can’t translate. In fact, in the book, Babette isn’t even part of the final confrontation. The movie adds her to events and uses it to make the finale a bit more inspiring and hopeful.
But the conversation with Sister Marie feels like a natural extension of the story’s obsession with dying. What happens next? Is there nothingness? Is there something more? And Marie’s point is probably not. But people want to have hope. Even if they don’t believe it. The idea someone else does gives all of us a degree of reasonable doubt. “I don’t believe in heaven. But…maybe…” That doubt creates hope. And that hope, however slim, is part of how a lot of us come to terms with the idea of dying. It’s the real Dylar.
Recall, Dylar was the drug that hoped to rid people of their fear of death. Science didn’t succeed. But that doesn’t mean the concept isn’t attainable, in some capacity. We get over the fear through belief. Whether it’s our own or the belief of others. And through consumerism. Through the simplicity of the day to day routine. The bright distraction of corporate cheer. Which is why we get the whole A&P dance sequence. This is the white noise that drowns out death’s whispers. It’s stylized as hell. And kind of cheesy. But when the alternative is the void of annihilation, a grocery store is a wondrous place.
Important motifs in White Noise
The storm during the airborne toxic event
White Noise is a pretty stylized film, almost a little theatrical or cartoonish. Maybe heightened is a better word. The volume on the “surreal” dial is turned up to a solid 4 or 5. This allows White Noise to have some unreal aspects. One of which is the presentation of the storm during the airborne toxic event. The storm is this huge, menacing, obsidian monster that’s aglow with pink lighting. It has the demeanor of the end of the world.
The main theme of White Noise is Thanatophobia, the fear of death. Both Jack and Babette have to navigate their existential terror at the thought of their lives ending. The fear is initially something distant. But with the toxic event, the threat is suddenly very real. Death is all around. So the storm being as scary as possible is a way to capture this dreadful feeling that’s been inside of the main characters. It’s an externalization of their fear.
The light in the church
At the very end of White Noise, Jack and Babette spend the dawn in an old church, as nuns treat their wounds. The couple is on the other side of a serious fight that involved Babette’s revelation she had cheated on Jack with a doctor who promised to cure her of her Thanatophobia. Jack then went to eliminate the man, Mr. Gray. Jack, Babette, and Mr. Gray all end up shot. This violence has a purifying effect. It helps Jack focus on what’s important: life. So he chooses to save Mr. Gray by bringing him to the hospital. Then reconciles with Babette. They’ll never be rid of their Thanatophobia. But they don’t have to focus on it. They can focus on the love they have for each other. On the time they have together. On the beauty of being. The scene ends with the dawn light pouring in from the church’s window and shining on our protagonists.
The sunlight is a direct visual contrast to the earlier storm after the chemical spill and resulting event. The storm, which represented death or the fear of death, was dark and terrifying and all-encompassing. The light is bright, soft, and diffused. A classic light vs. darkness motif. But here it represents the existential state of the main characters. Both internally and externally, they’ve reached a point of being more in the light than the dark.
Questions and Answers
You can leave questions in the comments.
What is the meaning of White Noise?
White Noise is a meditation on the fear of death, also known as Thanatophobia. At first, the fear of death is something distant. Then it becomes a real threat via the airborne toxic event. Finally, it becomes something personal, as Jack is presumed to have some kind of terminal illness caused by exposure to the event. The movie explores the effect our fear of death has on us, as well as the things that can distract us from it.
Where is White Noise set?
An unnamed town in Ohio.
Is there really a Hitler Studies class?
Colleges have taught classes about Hitler and Nazism in Germany. And there are professors who focus on it. For example, Professor Christopher Browning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While it’s an outlandish thing that White Noise uses for comedic effect, it’s very real.
Is Dylar real?
No. There currently is not a pill that can cause someone to forget specifically about their fear of death. There are, of course, pills that will put you in a stupor, muting most of life’s worries. But that’s more of a global “I don’t care about anything” kind of effect.
Did Dylar work?
What was Dylar supposed to do?
It was supposed to cause people to stop fearing death. But it didn’t work. And the side effect was that Babette started forgetting things in her day to day. At one point, she couldn’t remember the names of her children. Which begs the question: is it worth it? If no longer being afraid of death costs you quality of life, what do you really gain?
Why do they dance in the grocery store?
At that point in the movie, Jack and Babette want to celebrate life. There’s an overall positivity that’s supposed to come through. And the grocery store, with all its corporate optimism, is part of this. One of the small ways in which we distract ourselves from mortality via consumerism. So the dance is supposed to capture that idea of enjoying life while you have it. Even the mundane parts. The novel does not have a dance scene, but the final scene is in the grocery store and appreciative of the ritual.
Was the airborne toxic event real?
Not specifically, no. There was never a terrifying toxic spill in the midwestern United States. But, a month before the original novel came out in 1985, there was a toxic leak in India that made the news. The Bhopal disaster has the record for the worst industrial disaster ever (as of 2023). The chemical leak exposed over half a million people to the toxic gas methyl isocyanate. The official figure of the injured? 574, 366. Over 2,000 people died immediately. With nearly 20,000 more having deaths that traced back to complications from the toxic event.
So DeLillo conceived of and wrote the entirety of White Noise. Edited it. Sent it off to the publisher. Then the Bhopal disaster happened and a month later the novel came out. It gained DeLillo a bit of a reputation for being prescient. People started looking at his novels as being ahead of events that would soon follow. His most recent novel, The Silence, is about an EMP burst that knocks out power to all of New York City. So be ready?