Review: Russell Crowe is the stormy center of Aronofsky’s turbulent and terrifying ‘Noah’

Darren Aronofsky's “Noah” is not just one of the most ambitious films I've seen this year, it's one of the most ambitious films I've ever seen. It's a movie that is spilling over with ideas and images and emotional explorations of the metaphysical. It's a movie in which shamanic culture is part of the same tradition as fallen seraphim and blatant miracles. It tells a story that is so familiar at this point that it has no impact whatsoever and tells it in a way that is constantly pushing and challenging the viewer. Whatever your idea of the story of “Noah” is, Aronofsky, along with his co-writer Ari Handel, has found a distinct and different way into it, and what he's made is going to be worth conversation all year long.

One of the first things that strikes you when reading the Bible is just how much of it is concerned with lineage. Family trees are incredibly important in the Old Testament, and this film kicks off with a very simplified explanation. In the beginning, there was the garden. There was the fruit. Temptation. The snake. Cast out. Adam and Eve have three sons, Cain, Abel, and Seth. Cain and Abel take their act on the road and Seth and his descendants take care of the relationship with the Creator. Noah is shown to be the youngest descendent of Seth at the start of the film, and he sees his father killed by Men, sons of Cain whose industrial cities have choked the planet with waste and evil.

When we catch up with Noah as a man, he has three sons, and he lives off the land, away from everyone else. He and his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) are happy with their humble lives and their sons. They also have a daughter they took in when they found her injured as a girl, abandoned and afraid. Her injuries left her barren, but Ila (Emma Watson) grows up as part of their family, eventually falling in love with Shem (Douglas Booth), Noah's oldest son. Ham (Logan Lerman) is on the verge of becoming a man, and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) is the baby of the bunch, barely in his teens. This is Noah's entire world when he witnesses a very small miracle one afternoon, presented by Aronofsky in such a small matter of fact way that Noah's not even sure what he saw. He tries to tell his wife, but he's not sure what it was, what it meant. When the Creator (the film rarely, if ever, uses the word God, instead referring to him as The Creator for the most part) speaks to Noah again, it is in a dream, and it is a horrible image, a drowned world, an ocean of dead bodies, and Noah right there with them. He sees this as a dire warning, and he feels like he needs to reach out to his grandfather, still alive and alone on top of a mountain, because he saw his grandfather's mountain in that dream.

Sir Anthony Hopkins plays Methuselah, and he lives in this striking volcanic cave in the middle of nowhere. He's not surprised to see Noah, or to hear about his vision. He mixes something for Noah, a tea that turns out to be a powerful herbal hallucinogen, and Noah is given the rest of his vision, including the Ark and his mission to save the beasts of the world. Just in the way Aronofsky handles the visions that drive Noah to his mission, he sets himself apart from most Biblical films. How to show a conversation with a divine spirit in a film is a question that some great directors have grappled with, and not always successfully. I was captivated by the way Scorsese showed Christ's conversations with God as a form of seizure, a holy fit that digs into his brain, that cripples him and that lays him flat. Here, Noah's visions are clear, but they are also apocalyptic. This is the Old Testament God of wrath and fire and fury, and Aronofsky paints a bleak picture of what's to come.

There's a scene in the middle of this film that is almost a film on its own, and in many ways, I feel like this is the film that I thought “Tree Of Life” was going to be when Malick first started talking about it. In one visually arresting time-lapse sequence, Aronofsky tells the story of the Seven Days of Creation, and he makes it abundantly clear that these days are ages, eons, massive spans of time, and each Day is a movement in the life of this planet. We watch evolution unfold and the planet slowly moves from the first life in the oceans to Noah and his family, and instead of evolution being at odds with the notion of a Creator, Aronofsky's vision reveals it as the marvelous, intricate plan of a Creator. It is an audacious hand grenade to roll into what is already a culture war right now, and I think it speaks to the serious way Aronofsky approaches the spiritual side of this story. This is, without any hesitance, the story of a man who speaks directly to his divine creator, and it is a film that explores just what it means to have faith. The dark side of that is grappled with just as much as the uplifting power of it, and I'm curious to see if people do reject this as a sober examination of spiritual matters and just get hung up on the rather remarkable surface of the thing.

Did I mention the rock monsters yet?

The Book of Enoch is not an official biblical text, but it is something that is part of the Jewish tradition, and the text is said to date back as far as 300 BC. It is the story of the fall of The Watchers, angels who gave up their divine nature in order to help mankind after God cast them out of the Garden of Eden. When they fell, they were changed, leaving behind their beautiful form to become twisted and misshapen rock made flesh. Aronofsky and Handel make the Watchers major characters in the film. They are introduced early, when Noah and his family run across Watchers in the desert and infuriate them. They are left to starve in a deep trench where the Watchers dropped them, and it is only when Noah announces himself as a son of Seth that one of the Watchers has mercy on him.

Mercy is an important idea in the film. Mercy is something that cannot be earned, that can only be granted, and mercy requires the person with all the power to choose to set that power aside. In the case of The Creator in this film, he quite clearly tells Noah that no people aside from his family are to be saved. The animals and the beasts are all innocent. They must be saved. But there is no hope for mankind, and there is no exception. This sets up a particularly ugly second half of the film once they're on the boat. Noah does not believe there is a place for man in the new world, and he is content to let their line die with his sons. For a while, it almost feels like we're watching “The Shining” on a boat, and Crowe taps into a genuine menace that has been absent from his work as of late.

Each major character or set of characters in the film is worth their own conversation. There's the story of Shem and Ila and what happens when they are visited by their own miracle in the midst of the end of the world. There's the story of Ham, whose desire to have a woman of his own is crushed by Noah, who decides that Ham will have to live his life alone, never to wed, never to have a family of his own. There's the story of Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), the king of the ruined land where Noah builds his Ark, and his efforts to secure his own place in the new world, even if he has to leave every one of his followers behind to do it. Each of these stories poses its own set of moral questions, and there are no easy answers in the world that Aronofsky has created. You could almost mistake this for a “Mad Max” film, and in this world, the industrial age has already happened and collapsed and poisoned everything. There's an early scene where we see pools of tainted water filled with runoff waste from some industry. Resources have dried up. Food is scarce. People have become barbarians again. This world is already dying, and when The Creator makes his decision to wash it away, it seems like the only possible thing that can be done with it. There's no healing a world this rotten.

While Crowe's work is uniformly good in the film, the younger cast struggles with tone at times. Emma Watson's performance is all over the place. She's very good at times, and she has a particular knack for grief, but her character goes through a physical transformation in the film that she's unable to play convincingly. It just strikes me as something that is outside her range right now. Logan Lerman's better as Ham, but there's one scene that is staged in such a way that I feel like he was playing the wrong scene entirely. He never acknowledges his surroundings, and since the scene takes place in a ditch filled with rotting human bodies, it seems like something you might at least notice. These are just a few individual things that don't work for me, when so much of the film is so interesting and so dense with ideas that I can let them go in the end.

There are staggering moments of imagination in the film. The way Aronofsky handles the arrival of the animals, the flood itself, the last handhold of humanity being washed away as Noah and his family listen from inside the Ark. These are strikingly realized moments where ILM is doing amazing work, but it feels strange because this is not the sort of thing we normally see rendered with this sort of photorealistic care. The Ark itself is a phenomenal set, both outside and in, and Aronofsky goes out of his way to show you just how big the set is and how much of it he can shoot without having to cut away, and it feels like a real thing, like something that actually could have existed.

I am fascinated by his treatment of these stories as myth worthy of interpretation and realization and not as literal historical truth. He has made a stylized world here that does not exist and has never existed, but in doing so, he casts a fairly stark light on our own world and how easily this could be the footnote to our own story. Clint Mansell's score is insistent and ecstatic and reaches for a sort of horrifying beauty as it builds and swells. Matthew Libatique's work is, as always, daring and emotional, and everything from the sky to the burnished shadowy Ark interiors is rendered with a painter's eye.

Part of me wonders if this is the final cut of the film. The entire thing is so urgent, so passionate, that I feel like there's something about it that still feels ragged, unfinished. It feels like Aronofsky is still arguing with himself, grappling with the various questions and complex moral landscapes that he's created, and like he's still searching as the film ends. Noah reaches his own version of peace, but it is hard-won and bitter, and I'm not sure it feels like any sort of victory. He is ruined by what he goes through, and why wouldn't he be? The greatest thing “Noah” does is let us feel some part of the horror of what the story really suggests, the single largest case of survivor's guilt possible. For anyone who is willing to challenge their own ideas of what this story means and how Biblical stories can be told, “Noah” is one harrowing ride.

“Noah” opens in theaters on Friday.