Successful architect Jonathan Rivers' (Michael Keaton) peaceful existence is shattered by the unexplained disappearance and death of his wife Anna (Chandra West). But that's not the worst of it. Jonathan is then contacted by a man who claims to receive messages from Anna through Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP) a form of clairvoyance in which the dead can communicate through such electronic devices as radio television and computers. Well that's just plain crazy talk! Not to Jonathan who is soon convinced EVP is the real deal. He becomes obsessed with it setting up his own EVP den of snowy white noise-filled televisions computer screens and recording devices in hopes of hearing from his beloved. Problem is--and it's a rather major problem--the further he probes into this paranormal activity the more he opens himself up to hearing from all the dearly departed some of whom aren't so dear. In fact there are more than a few on the "other side" who are downright psychotic and none too happy about being meddled with. They're heeeeeeere!
Just where the heck has Michael Keaton been? Although he turned in a powerhouse performance in HBO's Live From Baghdad in 2002 the actor has been out of the movie limelight for quite sometime save for a brief and wasted appearance as the President of the United States in last year's tepid First Daughter. White Noise regrettably doesn't do the talented actor any justice either but at least he's back in the driver's seat. To his credit Keaton is convincing as the bereft Jonathan grasping at whatever he can to ease the pain but he has a tougher time once the film veers off into Poltergeist territory. In the supporting roles Deborah Kara Unger also does a nice turn as Sarah a kindred spirit who finds closure after contacting her dead fiancé but whose life is in danger once she gets wrapped up in Jonathan's obsession. But the most dead-on (pun intended) line comes from Jonathan's young son Mike (Nicholas Elia) who asks "Are you going to be all right daddy?" From the mouths of babes …
EVP is a bonafide practice. There are people and organizations all over the world devoted to this little-known but growing paranormal activity. Now whether you believe in EVP or not the idea of it is still very fascinating and one could see how making a film about it could be chillingly entertaining. Unfortunately however screenwriter Niall Johnson and BBC-TV director Geoffrey Sax in his feature film debut muck it up and turn White Noise into a contrived muddled mess. Perhaps if the film concentrated on the Poltergeist-meets-Ghost aspect as Jonathan gives into his obsession and lets the nasty entities take over it could have worked. But like the dreadful 2002 Dragonfly in which a man is sent on a rescue mission directed by communications from his dead wife White Noise takes a sudden shift as Jonathan's wife guides him to hunt down a serial killer. This tacked-on hackneyed plot point obviously devised to heighten the suspense only brings the film down. Even White Noise's look is unoriginal with its very antiseptic water-dripping and cold-concrete sets. Been there done that.
Jack and Terry (Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern) are an unhappy couple stifled by years of sullen barely concealed rage Jack's inertia and Terry's drinking. Their friends Hank and Edith (Peter Krause and Naomi Watts) are similarly miserable with each other which they act out through barely concealed affairs. As Jack and Edith begin their illicit tryst they instinctively seek to pair up Hank and Terry partly to make it easier for them to sneak around but mostly to alleviate their own guilt. So the two couples basically substitute one rut for another wheels spinning in the muddy morass of their own confused attempts at adulthood. Through it all their children become a sort of juvenile Greek chorus for their parents making the kinds of precocious pronouncements that are only uttered from the mouths of screenwriters.
As joyless as the movie is to sit through the acting is brilliant. Krause (Six Feet Under) tosses his nonchalance around as an impenetrable shield caring so little that he's impossible to wound. Ruffalo (Collateral) who is the most (and probably the only) human of the quartet provides the only thing approaching a moral center. And even in this company Dern manages to act circles around them. Her Terry is a definitive portrait of the party girl who finally wakes up hung over one morning only to discover she's got two kids to feed a house to clean and a husband who'd rather talk than make love. To her love means always having to admit you're desperate. So it's sad and chilling to watch her begin her affair with Hank only because in her own twisted way she thinks her husband wants her to.
Watts is still the most compulsively watchable actress working today summoning reserves of inner turmoil on cue and yet always making it look effortless. It is interesting to contrast her role here with her work in the far superior and brilliantly written 21 Grams. Both characters are deeply unhappy people trying to make sense of the cruel world. And yet 21 Grams which is much unhappier and more despondent achieves a sublime grace as each character discovers their humanity in their desperation. In this movie you just hope that at some point the four main characters will jump in an SUV that has faulty brakes.
The two men are college professors and the movie makes the most of that milieu with flirtatious students college bars and long leafy runs providing the backdrop. But most of the movie's plotting feels like its been done on graph paper. Jack and Terry make love. Cut to Hank and Edith making love. Jack talks to his daughter. Cut to Edith talking to her daughter. The rhythm of this duet becomes numbing. The movie is directed by John Curran an Australian making his first American feature. But the impetus for the story comes from screenwriter Larry Gross adapting two short stories by Andre Dubus who wrote In the Bedroom. Dubus' movie characters are all variations on the same emotionally stifled yuppie theme although In the Bedroom saved itself by turning into an old-fashioned revenge melodrama. We Don't Live Here Anymore is one of those movies and there have been oodles where the characters are so inert that the suspense if one can call it suspense is who will act first to break the circle of despair. And so the children of course are trotted out as pawns on the chessboard forcing the kings and queens to choose. I don't know which is more depressing: that this movie cliché has been used so often or that there are undoubtedly thousands of couples in the world who act exactly like this.