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We have not heard much of Michael Keaton recently, and I for one have missed him. Time used to be when he was one of the top go-to guys in Hollywood. Starting out with an erratic list of comedies, there are some real gems in the lot, most notably NIGHT SHIFT, JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY, GUNG HO and of course BEETLEJUICE. People were skeptical when he was cast in Tim Burton's BATMAN, but not me. I was thrilled, since I had already seen his amazing turn in CLEAN AND SOBER about a dozen times by the time the Dark Knight returned to the big screen. Look back amongst the three Bats we've had in the last four films and he's still the best. But then what? A series of decent but under-performing dramas (THE PAPER, MY LIFE)and big comedic blunders (MULTIPLICITY, SPEECHLESS) and we were suddenly getting less and less of Keaton. A good turn JACKIE BROWN which he reprised in a cameo for OUT OF SIGHT is the only big screen role that's resonated in the last ten years. He was even in the most wrong-headed Christmas film JACK FROST in which he played a kid's dead father reincarnated as a snowman who gives the fatherly advice he neglected while alive. It is not to be confused with the JACK FROST about a serial killer snowman, a film which was more entertaining and in many ways far less disturbing.
The good news is that Michael Keaton finally returns to the forefront in WHITE NOISE, the first bona fide horror film of 2005. The results aren't fantastic, but better than many other recent theatrical horror films.
Keaton plays Jonathan Rivers, a guy who has it all. His first marriage didn't work out, but he has a great relationship with his ex-wife and his son. His second wife (Chandra West) is beautiful, charming and successful. He has a well-paying job as an architect. Then, fate pulls the rug out from under Jonathan. His wife does not return home one night and remains missing for several days. Jonathan is distraught but tries to muddle through as best he can.
He notices a strange man outside his house and then his office. When confronted, the man introduces himself as Raymond Price, a man who can communicate with the dead. He informs Jonathan that his wife has indeed died and has been trying to get in touch from the other side. Dismissing him as a sick quack, Jonathan goes about his business. But at 2:30 one morning, he is informed that his wife's body has indeed been discovered. The next morning, he gets a phone call from his wife's phone and briefly hears her voice. The time - 2:30 AM. Cue the TWILIGHT ZONE music.
Jonathan decides that Raymond may be onto something. Raymond tells him he's no medium and does not possess any powers. He instead is a specialist in Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP). Under the white noise of static TV stations and radio equipment, voices and faint images can be salvaged which uncannily match the identities of people who have passed. They use this method to deliver brief messages from beyond the grave.
Very quickly, Jonathan becomes obsessed, forsaking work and home. He sets up several monitors and constantly wears headphones to decipher anything he can. He can't make out what his dead wife is trying to say, but along the way he also pulls messages from other people and becomes a bit of messenger himself. A problem is that some of the ghosts are not the nice loved ones of our past and are potentially very dangerous. And that's about all I'll say of that.
WHITE NOISE is a good sign for people who don't like their horror with a lot of sturm und dang. It is instead influenced by the recent boom in Asian horror, a movement that often emphasizes mood over action. The most important thing for any viewer to know is that it is not a fast-moving film at all. WHITE NOISE is slow - verrry slow. Things build and build with only minimal climaxes in between. The fear factor comes in the idea of what might happen. We watch Jonathan as he tunes into the strange frequencies of the supernatural and soon we discover that we are listening as intently as he is. "What that something?" "Did I make out a word there?" Our minds try to make the same connections that he is making, whether there is anything there or not. And of course, there is the occasional great scare when something does finally pop out and say "Boo!"
It also continues the ongoing theme of the supernatural instigating itself into the realm of the technical and vice versa. Films like RINGU, PHONE and PULSE have all dealt with ghostly messages delivered through some form of mass media. I guess ghosts use all sorts of tools to get our attention in these things. They talk to raspy-voiced little kids, they move furniture around and if you're going to attach yourself to the boob tube, why not try to get through to you there as well?
WHITE NOISE is directed by Geoffrey Sax, a man whose previous experience seems almost exclusively limited to BBC programming. Unfortunately, much of the film does have that TV movie look to it, with very few truly inspired shots. However, he must be doing something right to hold our interest. Sax somehow manages to keep things interesting even though the entire concept of the film is practically anti-cinema. When you get down to it, much of the film relies on watching people watching static on TV screens or listening intently to fuzzy radio signals. Not exactly the material of a Jerry Bruckheimer film. Yet somehow it works, partially due to Sax's firm grasp of mise en scene (to those of you who aren't film students - look it up) and Keaton's intense performance.
Keaton is back in action here, maybe not the intense and fiery performance from CLEAN AND SOBER, but good enough for jazz nonetheless. The loss he feels is center stage here, and we do appreciate that Jonathan is a man who feels he has lost everything and will do anything to get even a shred of that life back again. He is given an EVP companion in the form of actress Deborah Kara Unger. I loved Unger in David Cronenberg's CRASH and David Fincher's THE GAME, and anxiously snatch up whatever she's in. But here, she really isn't much of anything and certainly doesn't have the opportunity to shine like she did in those other two features. It is no fault of Unger's that her character is basically a conduit. Her main function is to react to Keaton's comments. Otherwise, in addition to watching Keaton watch TV for two hours, we'd also have a majority of scenes in which he talks to himself.
The main flaw in WHITE NOISE comes in an approach which leaves far too many unanswered questions, most of them involving EVP. Most people, it's safe to assume, have no knowledge of this field of study. I certainly didn't when I walked into the theatre and actually I still don't. They explain why the dead are trying to communicate but they never sufficiently describe how. What is the scientific or even unscientific explanation behind EVP? And how are they getting these results anyway? Are they tuning to just a blank feed? A certain frequency? Are there certain circumstances required for eliciting messages from the dead? What is the ratio of success? Do they get a message for every hour of footage? Every ten hours? Every hundred? For a film that spends so much time talking about EVP, we come away from the film knowing very little. You don't have to sell us on the idea hook, line and sinker. We've tuned into plenty of films that have dealt with much more far-fetched theories. But if you're going to treat the subject matter this seriously, you do owe it to the viewer to explain yourself as fully as possible (You can learn a little more about it in one of the links we've provided.).
WHITE NOISE is also continuing what seems to be an ongoing epidemic among suspense features, namely the disappointing third act. I had mentioned before that the film is a slow burn with everything leading up to the conclusion. The problem is that is doesn't all add up to much. There is a lot we are never explained. Much of this hinders on an important plot point involving the strange nature of Jonathan's EVP messages. I will not spoil that portion of the film by explaining it, but suffice to say the film doesn't do a great job of explaining it either. Also are the central evil spectres in the film. We don't know who they are, what they want or why they are doing what they're doing. After all of this, the simple conceit that they're mean just doesn't cut it. All that's left in the end is a standard pot-boiler conclusion filled with some funny editing that almost seems like the ending was altered as an afterthought.
Thankfully, the rest of the film does offer some interest, even if it won't exactly melt the January ice. I'm not sure I buy the whole EVP thing, but I'm not opposed to the notion that the departed can leave behind some sort of energy that we don't understand. It's an interesting premise, one that may be improved on even more in a future film. Until then, WHITE NOISE is a decent film featuring a talented actor who has been away for far too long.