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White Noise

Nothing good on TV

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As if we're not overwhelmed with the endless clatter of communication here on earth, now it seems that the dead, too, have something to say. According to proponents of Electronic Voice Phenomenon, the gone-before are sending us important messages through various household appliances, if we'd only drop everything in our lives and just listen. At least that's the premise of White Noise, the debut feature from British television director Geoffrey Sax tracking one man's descent into EVP and beyond.

 

After his wife dies somewhat mysteriously, architect Jonathan Rivers (Michael Keaton) suffers in stoic silence. He moves from their family-friendly country cottage to a severe glass, cement and steel cubicle-type dwelling; he throws himself into work. And when he's approached by a flustered stranger, Raymond Price (Ian McNeice), who claims Rivers' dead wife, Anna, is sending him messages, he rightly sends the man packing.

 

Then his clock keeps stopping at 2:30 a.m. His answering machine and radio start acting up. A call originating from Anna's cell phone unnerves him enough that he pays a visit to Price. Price, an EVP proselytizer, shows Rivers his home lab, where dozens of recording devices are trained on static-filled TV sets, evidently the preferred medium for the dead to communicate through. (I couldn't help thinking that "white noise" and "ghosts" on TV -- hallmarks of bad broadcast reception -- are concepts lost to anybody under 40.)

 

Price replays a portion of static that supposedly says "Jonathan," and that's enough for our distraught hero, who, after a spending spree at Circuit City, converts his home into an EVP listening post. He drops his old life and hangs out with his new EVP buddy, Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), as they crane their necks toward TV screens to hear words from their respective dearly departed. The messages they receive are so generic, you wonder how these recipients even know they're for them -- or how the dead know where to send them. Mark it down to Things We Don't Yet Know About Technology in the After-Life

 

What might have been a moody contemplation of grief management (naturally we'd desire to hear the comforting voice of a dead loved one) quickly loses its bearings when other ghosts start chiming in. These spirits apparently have malevolent intentions. "They can't all be nice," warns Price. In other words, once you leave the door open, anybody can come crackling through, like a troublesome ghost-filled party line.

 

Besides cryptic messages from his wife, Rivers' audio-visual EVP set-up also delivers voices -- and images -- of the dead that warn of impending danger. Rivers turns avenger, trying to save the living while working off tips from the dead and -- this gets tricky -- the not-quite-dead-yet. What about those ghosts now in the room  -- did they come out of the TV? And if they can be here, why send a message?

 

This collection of plot holes was penned by Niall Johnson, and it's less a coherent narrative than a lot of disjointed by-the-book thriller elements juiced up by the EVP concept. One flaw of his story is its lack of skepticism. Everybody in White Noise is into EVP (or off the deep end, depending on your view), so there's little organic tension or any suggestion that Rivers just might be losing his own marbles. Memo to White Noise gang: The majority of folks don't believe in otherworldly communication. Might make a useful plot point.

 

In the midst of this mess, Keaton gives a solid, everyman performance, but he's forced to interact mostly with TVs on the fritz. Unger is an interesting actress who has little to do here. Occasionally, White Noise has flashes of visual style, but other parts -- like Sax's repeated use of overhead shots, or some overt symbolism -- feel amateurish.

 

For the most part, Sax opts for mood over action, though he breaks little new ground here: ominous music cues, flickering lights, the occasional jump-out scare and an all-too-familiar set-piece, the deserted, drippy, abandoned warehouse. Say, could there be something evil in there?! (And why is it always that in an empty building -- so still that one can hear water plinking four floors above -- no one can hear the approach of another person?) Frankly, the idea that my beloved TV might freak out and disgorge noisome apparitions gives me more real-world pause than the standard lured-into-an-empty-warehouse scenario.

 

After muddling through various red herrings and plenty of unanswered questions, White Noise suddenly careens toward a truly dreadful conclusion propped up by an unforgivable cheat; there's an inscrutable battle between corporal and otherwise unknowable forces, and finally a laughable father-son coda. This is some white noise you'll want to tune out.

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