Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Written by Aronofsky, Ari Handel. Produced by Aronofsky, Scott Franklin, Arnon Milchan, Mary Parent. Music by Clint Mansell. Photographed by Matthew Libatique. Edited by Andrew Weisblum. Production designed by Mark Friedberg. Starring Russell Crowe (Noah), Jennifer Connelly (Naameh), Ray Winstone (Tubal Cain), Anthony Hopkins (Methuselah), Emma Watson (Ila), Logan Lerman (Ham), Douglas Booth (Shem), Nick Nolte (voice of Samyaza), Frank Langella (voice of Azazel).
Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is that rarest of things. No, not just a multimillion dollar epic built out of sensitive subject matter. And no, not simply one of those handled by a great filmmaker. No, not even just one of those projects that is those things and yet perfectly and specifically reflects the pursuits of that artist. No, it’s rarer than all of that: a biblical epic of massive scale that is…get this: a real movie. Not content to be a lazy retelling of an old story (see this year’s shameless cash grab Son of God) or even anything resemblind a crowd pleaser, Aronofsky’s new film is maddening, bizarre, rough, brutal, thrilling and intelligent, especially in the way it challenges and provokes. And it’s the work of an auteur who is grappling heroically with the essence of his material, and with the tenets of his own faith. This is maybe the most personal and ambitious motion picture about religion since The Last Temptation of Christ.
Granted, this one comes from thinner source material. The biblical story of the flood is maybe four pages long, and Aronofsky, to his credit, has reimagined it by thinking laterally, pulling from works outside the Hebrew canon, and following the principles of midrash, a philosophy that values the experiential over the tangible. To argue the historical “facts” of the biblical story of Noah is, in Aronofsky’s view, beside the point, and beside the movie. He uses the mechanics of a fable and the cinematic language of the adventure film to tell a grand-yet-circumspect story about survival and sacrifice, impossible choices and brutal tests of character, the relationship between righteousness and monomania, the wickedness of all men and the goodness buried inside the best of them. How refreshing to see a $125 million dollar epic that’s actually about something, by the way.
Sunday school versions lingering of the flood story tend to emphasize the picaresque, pop-up book components of the story, showcasing a family captaining a boatload of animals. These iterations tend to step nimbly over the context of these images, which is, after all, an apocalypse brought on by irredeemable sin. One of Aronofsky’s aims, it appears, is to not let us off so easy. He plants us in a bronze age fantasy world that has reached its societal nadir. He shows a wasteland dually raped by industrialism and evil men, where rock monsters called watchers (Nick Nolte, Frank Langella) roam the countryside and claim to be the encrusted, worldly forms of fallen angels. It’s a place where Noah (Russell Crowe), son of Seth, tries to cultivate the land and his family, equally in vain, as both of those things are dying (the film’s pro-environment message is severe). And it’s a world where all evil is personified by the barbarian king Tubal Cain (Ray Winstone), waging war against the sons of Seth in a series of bloody, muddy conflicts.
Crowe, as it turns out, is perfectly suited to playing Aronofsky’s take on Noah, because he combines his traditional world-weariness with a frightening tunnel vision. He receives flashes of an upcoming reckoning from The Creator–He is never called God in the film, which will annoy the easily annoyed. Noah cannot process these insights, and must go to the mystic hermit Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), his grandfather, for help. He intuits evidence of an oncoming flood and presupposes that the reasoning behind it is God’s displeasure with mankind. He is helped in building his ark by the rock men watchers, who identify themselves as fallen angels who fled heaven to help man, were absorbed by the earth, and were since abandoned by the Creator. Now why would He do that? Indeed.
Noah’s wife (Jennifer Connelly) and children uneasily support him in his goal, and years pass as the ark exits construction phase. Soon the animals are summoned (two of each, naturally) and subdued into the ship’s massive cargo hold by magic incense. By then, Noah’s adopted daughter Illa has turned into Emma Watson, and she’s married to his son, Shem (Douglas Booth), not that this matters so much, as she is regrettably barren. But both are still better off than Noah’s second son, Ham (Logan Lerman) who has no wife and his prospects of getting one before the end of days are not good. Ham is crucial to Aronofsky’s re-conceptualization of this story as an allegory; he symbolizes man’s ability to fall into the depths of jealousy, lust and betrayal. Ham falls under the sway of the odious Tubal Cain, who leads an all-out assault on the ark, which is interrupted by torrents of rain and water that horrifically wash away humanity’s dregs: the term “wrath of God” has never been dramatized with more power.
It must be said, though: this is absolutely Aronfosky’s take on the material. It may not be yours. Did I mention the rock monsters? No, I’m still not kidding. Certainly, Noah reflects no interpretation of the story I’ve ever been exposed to (although it’s been a long time for me since Sunday school). But Aronofsky’s attempt does not denigrate the material; it instead twists and stretches it in tantalizing ways. The director’s goal here is not to blasphemy but instead to take this story apart, put it back together, and see how it works. He doubles down on fantasy elements in order to set a proper filmic foundation for this story, allow it to breathe, and figure out what it means, and why it matters. He invents his story out of whole cloth, with the utmost sincerity.
In the past, Aronofsky has specialized in characters who walk a tightrope of sanity above a gaping abyss. This is true here, too, as Noah has been recast from being an antideluvian Dr. Doolittle to instead being a man tortured by unbearable, momentous purpose that is challenging to decode. God’s voice comes not as a booming baritone but instead as simple, bracing images that cause frightening implications.
The problem with taking visions directly from God (or “The Creator”) is that you begin to internalize what you think is their intent: while Noah sees the value in washing away the filth and restarting a new paradise, he begins to wonder if any part of humankind is part of that bargain, including his own family. He terrorizes his loved ones with a growing fatalism. In one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, the family spends the first night of the ark listening to wails of the dying echo through the ship’s walls, and Noah is quick and stern to underline that they are not to be saved. His plan for when they find dry land is not at all propagation of the species, but rather its death rattle under guise of a retirement package. He also fails to realize that a screenwriter would never introduce a barren woman into act one of a story like this unless…well, you know. This causes complications.
What kind of man would do all this? Certainly he is asked by his family, but his newfound identity as God’s instrument provides little solace, to him or them. He is like Michael Shannon’s confused husband in Take Shelter: so surrendered to an invisible mystery that he has perhaps lost all sense of humanly reason. But what is humanity, anyway? If something has the capacity for evil, is it worth saving? If a person sacrifices decency at the altar of righteousness, is that deserving of respect? There are no easy answers in Noah’s universe: our nominal hero finds himself easily capable of terrible acts, and we are reminded how easy it can be to confuse a lack of self-doubt with strength. Meanwhile Tubal Cain tutors the fallen Ham in dialogue scenes that have a dark, seductive poetry.
What I like so much about Aronfosky’s film resides in this third act, and the way he pumps up his story while still avoiding the waters of overwrought melodrama. He’s more interested by the elemental, the metaphysical, and the awkward relationship those have with the humanistic. Has a man who has aided the workings of an apocalypse turned his back on his own race? If Noah has truly been touched by God, does he owe it to Him to follow that being’s impenetrable logic? If he has gone crazy (there is that possibility), what kind of God would allow that? What type of mercy or justice can flourish in a new world borne out of genocide? In bringing his own creation to the screen, Aronfosky has crafted a screenplay where himself, Noah, and the offscreen God cycle through each other’s perceived philosophies. Halfway through, Aronofsky pauses for a retelling of the creation story, one that bridges the gap between science and creationism with gorgeous visuals that imply the big bang and evolution, and handle the subsequent expulsion from paradise with stark mystery. This might be the bravest sequence in the entire movie.
Like his other films, Aronofsky makes no small plans here, and he swings for the fence. He uses the opportunity of a well-known story to tackle universal themes, and he embraces them with an artist’s zeal. The film is also technically beautiful, marrying the grim and the lovely, CGI and practical effects, film and digital. Noah’s ark, for once, has weight and form and makes architectural sense. But the most impressive effects are probably the watchers, who have acrobatic body language conveying a clunky physicality, while still suggesting a buried grace. And unlike many directors with their eyes on hugeness, Aronofsky knows how to handle actors: notice the way that Watson, with her tremendous eyes and her own precious cargo, becomes the heart and soul of the whole film, and how confidently Aronofsky keeps that from us until just the right time.
Noah is a movie that will certainly anger some, especially those who reserve the right to take offense when someone else’s spiritual experience does not strictly match their own. It has already been attacked in some circles by those who have not screened it, which is convenient for them. These are people who prefer groupthink to discussion; boy, they must throw boring parties. If you like faith-based movies that simply tell you what you like to hear, then do not go see it. But I think for the devout, atheists and agnostics alike (I’m of the third category), Noah is exhilarating: an adventure story that includes elements of severe psychological horror, in a package that just slightly touches the infinite. At the very least, it will leave you with lots to talk about.
There is something exquisitely courageous in Noah’s makeup – it asks big questions and finds communion with us in its inability to find definitive answers. My own take on the flood story is that it is a fiction designed to bring the reader closer to a subjective truth, and that’s what Aronofsky has done, only sharing it with all of us. What a generous creator he is. A