“White Noise” is nothing to shout about. The first major Hollywood studio release of 2005 is an unsatisfying supernatural thriller with an effectively unsettling build-up and a frustratingly muddled pay-off. Savvy marketing campaign and intriguing subject matter may be enough to corral even ticketbuyers normally averse to creepy-spooky fare. But word of mouth generated by disappointed auds won’t be kind, making rapid B.O. drop-off a dead certainty.
Plot pivots on an alleged phenomenon known as EVP — Electronic Voice Phenomenon — a process by which the dearly departed communicate with the living through the static and white noise of radios, TVs, cell phones and other electronic devices. In the world according to scripter Niall Johnson, if you stare at a static-snowy TV screen long enough, you might see or hear a loved one who’s communicating from the Other Side. Trouble is, you just as likely will invite contact with far less friendly spirits.
Early scenes establish a lovey-dovey relationship between architect Jonathan Rivers (Michael Keaton) and wife Anna (Chandra West), a bestselling author who delights her adoring husband when she announces her pregnancy. Auds know what to expect after five minutes of such on-screen bliss. And sure enough, it doesn’t take long for tragedy to strike: Anna disappears, and eventually is found dead. Her demise is declared an accident — yeah, sure — and grieving Jonathan is left alone with Mike (Nicholas Elia), his young son by a previous marriage.
Enter Raymond Price (Ian McNeice), a full-bodied, soft-spoken fellow who claims that, thanks to the miracle of EVP, he has received urgent messages from the late Mrs. Rivers. Jonathan is dubious — a reaction Keaton conveys with an eyebrow-arching worthy of Jack Nicholson — and rebuffs the corpulent stranger.
Gradually, however, the newly widowed architect becomes an EVP believer. So much so, in fact, that he fills his home with computers, TV monitors and video recorders, all in the hope of picking up messages from Anna.
The good news is, he gets what he wants. The bad news is, other people horn in on the conversation.
Elliptical and allusive, “White Noise” proceeds with stealthy, cat-like tread during its first half, while first-time feature helmer Geoffrey Sax skillfully sustains a clammy sense of bad vibes and impending disaster. And except for the aforementioned eyebrow shtick, Keaton’s lead performance is nicely understated and thoroughly sympathetic.
Lenser Chris Seager enhances the overall shivery mood by giving pic a predominantly bluish-gray sheen. Recurring water imagery is slightly overdone, but undeniably disquieting.
Unfortunately, Sax isn’t able to paper over the gaps of logic and continuity that begin to undermine pic at midway point. Initially arresting premise all too quickly devolves into familiar supernatural-thriller melodramatics, as Jonathan is driven by his late wife (and other netherworldly communicants) to save lives, comfort grievers, safeguard innocents and even stalk a serial killer. It’s never entirely clear why Jonathan has been singled out to assume so many responsibilities. And it’s even harder to understand why Sarah Tate (Deborah Kara Unger), another EVP believer who becomes Jonathan’s sometime-ally, isn’t privy to the same information and insight.
Much of pic’s final half-hour is given over to sudden actions and inexplicable twists that are meant to be ambiguous, but do little more than muddy the waters. It’s tempting to assume that some of the confusion is due to last-minute cutting. (At least one seemingly important character, an inquisitive cop played by Mike Dopud, appears to have been drastically diminished in the editing room.)
Maybe the eventual DVD release will include enough “deleted scenes” for homevid viewers to sort things out. But while you are watching, be careful to look out for the static!