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Josh Reviews Noah — Part Two!

Yesterday I began my review/analysis of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah.  Let’s dive back in!

At the end of part 1, I was talking about how I enjoyed that Darren Aronofsky didn’t shy away from depicting the presence of God and miracles in his film.  In talking about miraculous things in the movie, I have to talk again about the Watchers.  I love the Watchers so much.  They’re hugely unexpected, easily the most fantastical aspect of a movie that is filled with miraculous goings-on.  The Watchers represent a hugely creative, original way to depict these divine beings.  The combination of the story-telling with the great visual effects meant that I truly believed in these creatures, and I loved the way Mr. Aronofsky created distinct, different personalities for several of the Watchers.  These creatures felt real, and I cared about them.  I felt sympathy for them when the story is told of their harsh punishment by God (one of several times in which the film impressively does not shy away from allowing us to question God’s harsh judgments), and I was quite invested in their final fates.  I also thought the creatures had a wonderful visual “look” that really impressed me.

In the film, as in all of Torah, there are no easy answers, and this elevates Noah far beyond most ordinary Biblical films and other historical/fantasy epics.  That’s another reason, by the way, that I often have no patience for the re-telling of Biblical stories in movies or on TV, because I find people shy away from the complexities and instead present a simple, one-dimensional understanding of the story.  The world was evil and so god destroyed it, end of story, there’s no question that was the right thing to do.  But if you believe these events happened (and even if you don’t, but still think of the Bible as a central religious text), you MUST wrestle more deeply with this story.  Was the death of all life on the planet truly necessary?  Were there no innocents whatsoever outside of Noah’s family?  Did all the children really have to die?  What about all of the animals other than the two-of-each species that were saved on board the ark?  Why did they all deserve to die?

These are deep, troubling questions, and ethical, thinking people must wrestle with these questions.  Even if all of the Bible was total fantasy, I would argue that these stories would STILL have value, as stories that must be wrestled with in order for each of us to find our own moral values, and our opinions of right and wrong (whether our conclusions be an understanding of the actions God is depicted as taking, or a condemnation of them).

The film digs very deeply into those questions.  When the story of the Watchers is told, I sympathized with them.  These were divine creatures attempting to aid mankind — God’s creations — and their punishment for doing so was terrible indeed.  Was that truly justice?

The film also does not flinch away from depicting the horror of the flood and what that would really mean.  We see a sequence in which Noah’s family, inside the ark, listens to the horrified death-screams of the gathered throngs.  We are shown a horrible image of men and women clambering atop of one another, trying to escape the rising water, only to all be killed by an oncoming wave.  This is brutal stuff.  And the film really holds the audience’s faces right into this horror.  I mentioned above the question of how there truly could have been no innocents in the world outside of Noah’s family.  In one of the film’s most striking moments, we see how Noah’s son Ham has befriended a young girl from amongst the masses who have gathered near the ark.  Ham desperately wants to save her from the flood, but ultimately Noah forces Ham to leave her (in  Noah’s defense at the time, he didn’t see any other way to protect Ham at that moment, when they were being chased by men out for blood) and we see her brutally trampled underfoot of the onrushing mob.  This is a horrifying sequence.  Is this justice?  Why did God not help save this girl?  The film does not allow us any easy answers to these questions.

To me the most interesting stretch of the film is the final act, a long sequence that transpires after the flood.  I mentioned in part 1 of my review that a huge swath of the film’s story seemed designed to explain the bizarre and enigmatic verses in Genesis 9:20-27 in which Noah, after the flood, gets drunk and gets naked.  Jewish scholars for centuries have puzzled over those verses and offered a number of explanations.  I have never before found one as compelling as that which Mr. Aronofsky crafts with the final act of this film.

In an intriguing spin on the familiar story, Mr. Aronofsky suggests that Noah, over the course of his ordeal, comes to believe that he and his family are in fact NOT meant to survive the flood.  Noah comes to think that his task was to ensure the survival of the animal species, and that after the flood God’s intention is to re-start the world, albeit this time without man.  When he learns that Ila is pregnant, he declares his intention to kill her baby if she births a girl (who could wed one of his other sons and give birth to more children, thus re-populating the planet with mankind).  The film at this point turns into something of a horror film as the days on the ark continue and Ila’s pregnancy grows, while Noah retreats into solitude and his murderous intentions solidify.  I won’t spoil everything that happens, but suffice it to say that these events, combined with the incredible burden of having witnessed the destruction of the world, break Noah.  The man who walks off that ark is not the same man who first boarded it, and suddenly we understand Noah’s descent into drunkenness after the flood-waters receded.  I was also, by the way, thrilled that the film gives Noah a satisfactory resolution to this story, one not granted by the Torah which, after telling of Noah’s drunkenness, tells us nothing more of his life.

There is so much to consider and debate in this last third of the film.  As we see the impact of Noah’s experiences weigh him down, we’re again forced to confront the question of God’s actions in destroying the world… and also to wonder why couldn’t he have given clearer instructions to his servant Noah, thus sparing Noah the devastating pain of struggling with whether he should or should not murder his grandson.  In the end, Ila gives us (and Noah) a possible explanation.  In couching Noah’s experiences of the ultimate test — to determine whether Noah and his descendants had good impulses in them that could outweigh the bad — we have a possible explanation/justification for God’s actions, and here again each audience member must consider for him or her-self what they think of this.

As an aside, I was also fascinated here by Mr. Aronofsky’s decision to transpose the famous story from later in Genesis of akeydat Yitzhak — Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac, on instructions from God — into the end of the Noah story.  This is one of the most complex and difficult stories in the Torah, and I was quite interested by the way Mr. Aronofsky used the themes and questions of that story as a powerful climax to his tale of Noah.

But getting back to Noah and his plan to murder his grandchild, we also have a sophisticated study in the dangers of religious fanaticism.  When the story of Noah is usually re-told, Noah is always the hero.  He gets instructions from God, he follows those instructions, and all is well.  But in the final third of this film we see how easily a human being’s struggle to interpret what they see as the will of God can lead to a person’s taking incredibly abhorrent actions.  Again we have strong thematic connections to powerful issues of our day.  And again, the film does not give us any easy answers.  We, like Noah, must wrestle with what we feel is right, and struggle to make the best possible decisions we can, despite being fallible human beings without the easy out of direct words from God telling us exactly what to do.

There’s so much more about this film to discuss and consider, even though I’ve already filled up two lengthy blog posts.  I have spent almost all of my time dissecting the film’s various thematic aspects and interpretations, while only writing a few sentences about the actual filmmaking or performances.  This is the degree to which I found Noah complex and engaging, a total shock for a film that was being sold as a Biblical Action Epic.

Before I wrap up (finally), I do want to praise the cast.  Russell Crowe is fantastic in the lead.  The seriousness with which he takes the performance, and the emotion with which he imbues Noah, is a huge reason why the film succeeds.  The actors playing his children (Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, and Leo McHugh Carroll) are all strong, as are Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson as Noah’s wife and adopted daughter.  (I was thrilled, by the way, to see a Perks of Being a Wallflower reunion, which Logan Lerman and Emma Watson back on screen together!  Though sadly Emma’s character was in love with a different son of Noah, rather than the one played by Mr. Lerman…)  Speaking of Mr. Lerman, after playing such a sweet and innocent young man in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it was exciting to see him playing such a different character here, as Ham is a man filled with anger and growing rage.

There are a lot of other actors who do strong work in supporting roles, and I have to single out Ray Winstone as Tubal-Cain.  Tubal-Cain is mentioned in just a single verse of the Torah (Genesis 4:22), but Mr. Aronofsky has fleshed him out into the main antagonist of the film, the leader of the evil men attempting to capture the ark.  He’s the villain, but even here the film never turns him into a monster.  He’s cruel, yes, but his point of view — that God has abandoned men and so they must do as best they can according to their own devices — is understandable.  His climactic speech about how there is nothing than mankind cannot accomplish is, in the film, a mark of his arrogance and how he and the other wicked men have come to believe they are greater than God… but in another movie that might have been the stirring speech of the film’s hero!  Tubal-Cain is a great, fleshed-out character, and Ray Winstone is spectacular in the role.  He’s incredibly scary and fearsome, while also showing us Tubal-Cain’s incredible charisma which has enabled him to become the king of men.  It’s a great performance in a great role.

The script, written by Mr. Aronofsky and Ari Handel, is very strong, and over-all it is Mr. Aronofsky’s strong hand at the helm that brings the film together.  He’s able to handle the huge epic fantasy aspect of the story, without ever letting the spectacle overwhelm the emotional character stories being told.

I loved Noah.  I loved the experience of seeing it in the theatre, and I have loved the time I’ve spend thinking about it since then.  Bravo to Mr. Aronofsky and his team for crafting such a wonderfully original, thought-provoking piece of work.  Would that more big-budget action spectacles had this kind of depth.

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