Noah Is A Bloated, Beautiful Mess (Like Russell Crowe)
Noah isn’t for everyone, but it’s a perfect movie for those of us who believe obsession is a certain kind of genius. Darren Aronofsky’s obsession? His impossible task? Making sense of the Bible. Noah’s story is simple enough if you leave out the details, which I imagine many true believers would suggest that you do. Plot holes? Story doesn’t track? That’s where faith comes in! (I do remember some bits of church from childhood). God tells Noah to build a boat, Noah builds it, everyone else sucks so they die, and Noah lives happily ever after, the end. Epilogue: 6,000 years of incest, then you.
Aronofsky seems to want to believe the story, but as a storyteller himself, he can’t let go of the details. Exactly how did God speak to Noah, and how often? Did Noah resent God for leaving him to separate righteous from wicked, or did he get a bit of a God complex himself? When he saw the sinners raping each other, did he want to save the rapees or did he just say screw it all and take off in his boat?
To watch Noah is to see Darren Aronofsky earnestly trying to resolve these thorny questions, to flesh out a Bible story that doesn’t necessarily make a ton of sense in the original version. To make it work in a way that’s true for him. To understand an Old Testament God who, as written, might’ve been kind of an asshole (note: I learned this mostly from an old Lewis Black bit). It’s a movie that posits the profound hypothesis that maybe mankind is forever cursed to destroy God’s creations because of our irrational love of our own progeny. That’s a pretty heavy thought, and to see it come from a movie full of prehistoric hoodies, pregnancy tests performed using a magic leaf, and CGI rock people voiced by Nick Nolte, is completely, righteously, gloriously f*cking insane. It’s spectacle at its best. Silly, but silly in the way that the universe is profoundly silly. And let’s be honest, Nick Nolte was born to voice a rock person.
Noah is such a magnificent whatsit that Paramount has no idea what to do with it. They screened it at a last-minute showing (usually these things are decided weeks in advance) held at 11 am, two days before the release. A sure sign that they were either terrified of what people might write about it or just couldn’t make a decision about how to sell it. I think the studio heads, possibly in a fit of cocaine-induced optimism, thought they were getting a big budget action movie where Noah would growl “GET OFF MY BOAT!” like Harrison Ford in Air Force One applied to some Biblical terrorist (Ark Force One?). And that, because it was a Bible story, flyover state pastors would funnel their shit-kicking congregants in by the bus load to see it. Instead, they got moral complexity and a “hero” who looks like he might end up murdering his own family. Most action movies paint the protagonist’s single-minded quest to protect his family as the ultimate virtue. What Noah presupposes is, what it if isn’t? In fact, what if it putting your children above all else was actually the root of all sin? Instead of a movie about the word of God, they got one man’s big budget manic episode that only just manages to find a messy sort of closure at the end of three hours. I love that.
Noah begins like that Biblical action movie. Noah and his family are the last of the righteous, hemmed in on all sides by the murderous descendants of Cain, led by Ray Winstone, who kills Noah’s father over a snake skin and runs a network of mining towns dedicated to raping the Earth of its minerals and women of their virtue. Meanwhile, Noah’s family are vegetarians, living off the fat of the land, away from the sinful cities. One day, a sort of baby deer/armadillo-looking animal with an arrowhead stuck in its side runs into Noah’s camp, and Noah tries to save it from the evil hunters. They attack him, but he channels his righteousness into skull crunching punches and deadly kicks. One hunter lies broken on the ground, helpless, demanding of Noah (reasonably so, really), “What do you want?”
“Justice,” growls Noah Crowe. The scene cuts to black, leaving it up to our imaginations whether Noah ended up murdering that last guy in cold blood, to say nothing of how he might’ve managed to grow so meat pie stout and lager bloated on a vegan diet of berries and asskicking.
From there, Noah has a vision of the flood, and takes his sons with him up to the mountain to seek guidance from his grandfather, Methuselah, played by Anthony Hopkins (who, according to movies, is the father of all deities and important people). Methuselah asks his great grandson what he likes best in life, and rather than answer “to crush my enemies, to see them driven before me, to hear the lamentations of their women,” the innocent tyke says “berries.” Methuselah strokes his beard and agrees that, yes, berries are totally bitchin, and proceeds to spend the rest of the movie doing nothing but foraging for berries. The first shot after the flood? Noah, picking some goddamned berries. I swear, this entire movie is just propaganda for Big Berry.
But before that, Methuselah gets Noah messed up on peyote tea to help him better understand the word of God, which spurs Noah to build his ark, with help from the giant rock people (don’t ask). Noah plants some magic God beans, and the Earth spouts geysers and a great forest with which to build the ark. Noah and the rock people set to work building, but before long, Ray Winstone and company find them, and set up a rival camp in the forest, where they spend their days raping each other and tearing God’s creatures limb from limb and eating them raw. At one point, a guy actually trades a goat-thing for a young girl. Berries for the righteous, rape-meat for the sinners, seems to be the message here.
I do think Aronofsky could’ve gotten a little more creative with the kinds of animals the rapists slaughtered for food, as every animal that didn’t make it on the ark becomes a handy explanation for why it doesn’t exist anymore. Oh dang, now they’re eating the centaurs, and so forth.
Also, either Noah’s three sons are going to have to find wives amongst the rape camp or there’s going to be a loooot of incest going on in the post-flood world. Aronofsky doesn’t shy away from any of these niggling details, but instead sort of follows them to their logical conclusions, which of course aren’t very logical at all. The movie is a big mess in the third act. How could it not be? The mess is the beauty of it. (One question that’s never addressed, why is everyone white? Did black people come later? Wouldn’t Noah have to have had a few black wives or kids? Some questions about this story are simply impossible to answer).
It stumbles in a few places, to be sure – I’ve never been able to see Emma Watson as anything but “Emma Watson acting”, perhaps this is a personal problem – but, almost miraculously, it comes to a somewhat touching conclusion. That our stupid love of our offspring is both our undoing and what makes us human. There’s more than a little Rust Cohle in this Noah.
There’s a subplot about Ham (by which I refer to Noah’s son, played by Logan Lerman, not Russell Crowe’s favorite garnish) that doesn’t quite make sense. But honestly, have you ever read anything about Ham? Ham’s offspring were apparently cursed, either because he walked in on his naked, drunk dad, or because he walked in on his naked, drunk dad and buttf*cked him, or… something. The true meaning of this story has likely been forever lost in translation, beyond what you make of it yourself. Which, of course, is exactly what Aronofsky has done.
In Noah, Ham walks away saying “Maybe we’ll learn to be kind,” and I don’t know what the hell that story was supposed to mean, but despite its warts and disappointing lack of father sodomy, I thought it was a nice statement. The movie should’ve ended right there.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.