The elder statesmen of Hollywood’s leading actors never learn. Movies where a pretty young love interest dies only to establish contact from beyond the grave are exceptionally dicey propositions.
Kevin Costner’s search for his dead beloved became drippy New Age drama in Dragonfly. And Harrison Ford’s evil deeds in What Lies Beneath prompted a return from the spooky mistress, along with a bad end to his character and the movie.
The only such movie to work in recent years was 2002’s The Mothman Prophecies, with Richard Gere. In its few effective moments, White Noise channels that film’s frantic need for answers in the wake of tragedy. And this film’s notion of unexpected, random heroic acts echoes Unbreakable, still M. Night Shyamalan’s best work.
The problem is that the film rejects either of those intriguing ideas for a cheap-thrill blur of plot complications. White Noise’s payoff is but an undercooked scrap from Shyamalan’s table.
Everything is laid out in plain sight, but not in the way The Sixth Sense threw off deceptively clever red herrings. The lone surprise is how quickly and poorly a truly nothing character becomes a key player. Were the movie a little bolder, smarter and nastier, the frustrating plot-point questions its ending raises would have become fascinating talking points for the drive home.
The annoying tinkle of a John Tesh-style piano in the introductory scene resembles a pregnancy-test commercial. It’s no surprise, then, when that news drops on Jonathan Rivers (Michael Keaton) from his author wife Anna. She then embarks on a trip from which she doesn’t come home.
Shortly after her body is found, a paranormal expert (Ian McNeice) tells Jonathan that Anna has been sending otherworldly messages. Her medium is Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP), a documented-in-true-life happening in which white noise on a television or sound recording seemingly carries brief visions and words from the deceased.
Jonathan ultimately bites on the EVP hook and grows increasingly infatuated with seeing Anna’s face in a fuzzy screen. What he doesn’t know is that his constant communication with the other side has drawn the attention of evil spirits that may be manipulating everything he sees and does.
The film’s terminally morose half is almost as static as the many detuned TV screens it shows. At least director Geoffrey Sax enjoys playing with shadows and light for unoriginal, but nicely composed, motifs of grief and menace. The use of silence and sound also delivers a handful of hammering scares.
But White Noise constantly false starts where it should jumpstart, especially with the nervous advice to Jonathan from a psychic (Keegan Connor Tracy), who suggests some supernatural scenarios are better left alone.
Instead, Jonathan presses on, alternating between heroic acts and sunken-faced obsession. It’s hard to root for him rescuing so many other people (with the aid of EVP) as he becomes an absentee father to a son from a previous marriage. (An apology scene to him late in the film registers next to nothing.) Jonathan also loses crucial sight of the spiritual peace in reconnecting with Anna, and the resolution is empty of anything except special effects cribbed from Ghost.
With such a unique paranormal phenomenon at its center, White Noise could have been quirky and interesting. It is instead just another piece of instantly disposable pulp that’s stylish, infrequently creepy and a waste of strong acting talent on a lame lead character.