It shouldn’t feel so revolutionary for a film to take the Bible seriously. However, between certain groups of people denigrating believers as fools holding on to children’s stories and other groups stridently refusing to address or even acknowledge the inherent otherworldliness of the Bible’s words, it’s difficult to strike a balance that doesn’t come off as either willfully ignorant or angrily judgmental. Any film that grapples with questions of faith is bound to be a hard trick to pull off, and any movie that draws its story directly from the good book is running an even narrower tightrope.
So it was with earnest eagerness strung through with mild trepidation that I went to see you, Noah. I knew from one of his previous films, The Fountain, that your director, Darren Aronofsky, was not afraid of plumbing the psychological depths of those who take on immense spiritual tasks while addressing those spiritual questions with utter earnestness. Humor or sarcasm or irony could be useful in blunting the inherent seriousness of the kinds of questions you and The Fountain examine, but Aronofsky is unflinching in his gaze and tone, and both you and your forebearer are stronger for it.
As anyone could guess by your title, you tell the biblical story of the flood, focusing on the man who was tasked by God to save those who might be deemed worth saving. Considering that the world is being put beneath the waves due to the overwhelming wickedness of mankind, it should strike no one as a surprise that while every kind of animal is welcome on the life-saving ark, the human guest list is restricted to direct family only. What follows from this premise is a story much less interested in the logistics of saving every breed and species of animal from a great deluge, passing over this unthinkably large operation in order to better focus on the actual psychological and moral toll such a burden would carry.
Russell Crowe anchors your tale as the titular protagonist, the last patriarch of the line of Seth, who with the fratricidal Cain were the only descendants of Adam and Eve. A man dedicated to his family, he is the polar opposite of the rest of mankind as it exists post-fall. Whereas the others rebel against a Father who they believe has abandoned them by taking all they can from His creation, Noah lives a life of stoic minimalism. Even the picking of a single flower results in a small lecture for his second son, Ham. When God speaks to him in a dream and tells him that the world will soon be underwater, he does not hesitate to go to his grandfather, a mountain-bound hermit, to learn what he must do in service of this vision.
Crowe holds up this story ably, creating a Noah that is unfamiliar compared to the Noah we hear about in CCD and Sunday School but who strikes a much more human note. He is dedicated to the task at hand, and struggles to understand the magnitude of what he has been tasked with. The closer the day of the rain becomes, the more he questions what is to become of mankind in the post-event world. The people of Cain do not give much reason to be hopeful for the future, but his love of his own family fills him with hope, hope that slowly deteriorates with every day.
It is Crowe’s commitment to creating a wholly realized examination of a man struggling with the immensity of his task that sells you. The story of Noah is so often glossed over to better tell the story of the flood or the saving of the animals that we never really get a chance to understand the immensity of what this one man was asked to do. Crowe, always a performer with a gift for gravitas and externalizing inner torment, brings all of this pain and uncertainty to the fore in his performance for most of the movie, making his shift to passionate adherence to his interpretation of the word of God all the more shocking. The hardening of his features foretells the hardening of his heart, and this is when the real struggle for the future of Man begins.
There is a surprising amount of literalism in your tale, with the genesis of Man in the Garden of Eden taken as written history. The antediluvian world is rendered in stark landscapes and impossible horizons, creating a world both physically familiar yet still evoking a level of remove from our own. Animals with no real-world analog roam the now-barren plains of a world under siege from the parasitic lusts of the sons and daughters of Cain. A strange, glowing element lays in the soil, a giver of light and energy. Fallen angels roam unforgiving landscapes scorched by an ages-old war. The world is indeed fantastic, and it all grows from a place of deep commitment to the faith from which the biblical story of the flood comes. Reality and fantasy collide in the landscape and society, much as they collide in the words of the Bible. It is a small marvel, an elegant way of marking the world of Genesis as a place divorced from our current state.
Special mention must also be given to Ray Winstone as Tubal-Cain, a villain with more in common with the audience than Noah. He plays his warlord character as a violent leader in public, while showing his true colors in private. Abandoned by God because of the sins of his forefather, he is alike a petulant child who responds to being ignored by smashing a beloved artifact of his parent, though in this case the precious article is the world itself. Yet his righteous sense of self is infectious, and Logan Lerman as Ham deftly portrays the ways in which the seduction of this way of thinking might cause conflict in an otherwise righteous heart as cultivated by Noah.
The epic spectacle of the flood and the world conjured by Aronofsky’s vivid imagination would be enough to recommend you. But the deeper themes and ideas set forth, carried by the strong acting of your principles, many of whom have had to be elided from this review for fear of spoilers (specifically Emma Watson and Jennifer Connelly, both of whom carry strong emotional scenes effortlessly) make you something all the more thrilling and special. A firmly religious film that crosses boundaries to explore universally human questions and concerns.
You are truly one of a kind,
Brian J. Roan