Noah Baumbach’s latest film, White Noise, arrived on Netflix at the end of December, without much fanfare. Despite a strong fall film festival run, it received mixed reviews from critics; it peaked at no. 4 on Netflix’s self-reported Global Top 10 list, where other recent releases like Glass Onion, The Pale Blue Eye, and Road Dahl’s Matilda the Musical had higher numbers; and it was completely shut out of the 2023 Academy Awards.
But White Noise is coming back into the public eye in a big way after the recent toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, led to many pointing out similarities between real life and the film.
About a half-hour into White Noise, the film intercuts a lecture from Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), a professor of Hitler studies, about the Nazi leader reminiscing on the early days of his reign and the crowds who came out to see him with footage of what appears to be a gas truck crashing into a train. The editing ties the two together, with the latter sequence culminating in a seismic explosion and a mushroom-shaped cloud that could be seen from miles away and threatens the small town where the Gladney family resides.
The explosion, which is referred to in the movie as “The Airborne Toxic Event,” leads to lots of confusion, a lack of concrete information being relayed to the public (which leads to a lot of speculation from the Gladneys), mass evacuations for the public’s safety, and fears of contamination and death when Jack has to get out of his car to fill an empty gas tank and comes into brief contact with the air carrying harmful toxins; his interactions with authoritative figures don’t do much to placate his fears or prepare him for the worst. (The possibility of the entire family breathing in toxic fumes within their car isn’t addressed.)
But over the past week or so, White Noise’s Airborne Toxic Event has gotten a large chunk of the focus. On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern train derailment led to the hazardous contents of several train cars burning for several days. A contrast between clean-cut official statements and videos alleging the harm the chemicals are causing—such as contaminated water residents have been told is safe to drink and the deaths of pets and wild animals—has led to increased distrust.
“So apparently last year there was a movie on Netflix that nobody saw called White Noise where there was a cataclysmic train accident, which casted a cloud of chemical waste over a town in northeastern Ohio,” @salvatore_says explained. “And I think it’s just kind of breaking through that we’re in a digital Matrix right now.”
Another TikToker posted the scene from White Noise depicting the train crash and paired it with spooky music, writing, “This movie came out last year (2022) in August….notice anything familiar?” (The August date references the film’s world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, not its Netflix release date of Dec. 30.)
@loveflasun White Noise #trainderail #eastpalestine #whitenoise #ohio #conspiracy #movie #2022 #2023 #vinylchloride #polyvinylchloride #hydrochloricacid #usa #traincrash #derailment #fyp ♬ Spooky, quiet, scary atmosphere piano songs – Skittlegirl Sound
People love to point to pop culture as a precursor to our strange reality no matter the outcome, and that’s indeed happening with White Noise. The film was pretty under the radar upon its release compared to other movies released at the time, so on top of people discovering the similarities between the Netflix movie and what’s happening in Ohio, they’re learning that White Noise exists at all.
@199.1_tokfm #ihio #chemicalohio50 #ohiotrainderail #chemicalspill #news #fypシ゚viral #whitenoise #adamdriver #netflix #viral #foryoupage #trending ♬ original sound – ~👾W1SE~
TikToker @awwli777 pointed to another scene depicting the “controlled chaos” of the town’s evacuation.
@awwli777 White Noise Predicted Ohio Train 🚊 incident /derailment back in 2022 #fyp #ohio #trainderailment #awwli #woketok #awareness #spooky #predictions #planned #eastpalestineohio #eastpalestinetraincrash #whitenoise #chaos ♬ Suspense, horror, piano and music box – takaya
“Are we living the movie White Noise?” Luke Glavan asked his followers after sharing images that appear to be of a dark cloud believed to be of the explosion in East Palestine visible from an airplane.
As tempting as it might be, it’s not exactly accurate to say that Netflix’s movie predicted what’s happening in East Palestine right now. White Noise is based on Dom DeLillo’s seminal 1985 satirical novel, and the origins of the Airborne Toxic Event—which functions as a metaphor and a prescient (both in 1985 and in 2022, when the film started to screen) exploration of paranoia and misinformation—stem from there; Baumbach, in doing press for White Noise, has praised the novel for its evergreen prescience.
It is, in some ways, eerie, and White Noise has an even more surreal connection to East Palestine: White Noise was filmed in Ohio in 2021, and some of the film’s extras included residents from East Palestine, who now had to flee their homes after a similar airborne toxic event arrived in their town.
Still, people making the connection between White Noise and the train derailment in East Palestine makes sense to people familiar with DeLillo’s work.
“The terrible spill now is, of course, a coincidence. But it plays in our minds like life imitating art, which was imitating life, and on and on, because, as DeLillo suggests in ‘White Noise’ as well, we have unfortunately become too acquainted with the mediated language and enactment of disaster,” Jesse Kavadlo, an English professor at Maryville University, told CNN.