It’s possible to explain the (many, many) ways Noah, Darren Aronofsky’s loopy, enthralling retelling of the oft-told Bible story, departs from its sacrosanct source material, but the film throws convention out the window so thoroughly and with such brazen panache that it’s hard to know where to begin.
Actually, let’s start with the director. The name might ring a bell for many of you; I assure you, you’ve probably seen his work. Whether it’s obsessive ballet dancer Natalie Portman morphing into the titular bird before our very eyes – or is she? – at the end of Black Swan or Mickey Rourke getting pummeled, tossed around, even stapled in The Wrestler, Aronofsky’s central characters, much like the idiosyncratic filmmaker himself, march to the beat of their own drum. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the perennial Sunday school figure towards which the Requiem for a Dream helmer turns his eccentric gaze is here reinvented as a driven, maniacally devout patriarch.
Fortunately for Aronofsky, he has placed the burden of carrying this two-hour-plus biblical epic on Russell Crowe’s capable shoulders. Shrewd casting call. Crowe is equally at ease fulfilling the role’s daunting physical demands as he is engaging in heady theological debates, of which there are quite a few. As the man divinely chosen to repopulate the Earth, he starts out as a pillar of strength, a stoic and nurturing family man to his three boys and his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly, reuniting with her A Beautiful Mind hubby). But Aronofsky never allows viewers to become too comfortable empathizing with Noah as a hero. Much like this odd hybrid of a movie, the eventual animal collector is a walking contradiction. A true believer descended from Adam and Eve – we’ll get to them later – Noah finds his faith tested in severe, life-altering ways. His resolve becomes a mask for self-doubt as to the task he’s been entrusted to carry out. He fits right in as the protagonist in a movie with zero intention of playing it safe.
Which is not to say Aronofsky completely sidesteps the Good Book. On the contrary, he dives headfirst into what non-believers may regard as the Book of Genesis’ mythology with an outsider’s curiosity and a penchant for taking even the more outlandish events quite literally. Flashbacks of the Garden of Eden, rendered here as Noah’s intense fever dreams, come across as DayGlo-colored acid trips, complete with pulsating forbidden fruit and a rather, um, intriguing depiction of the First Sin. When the massive global storm finally comes, he pans out to show Earth completely covered in hurricanes/typhoons. Even though it doesn’t feel like a been-there-done-that adaptation, the movie retains the bare bones of Noah’s journey. Old Testament scholars disheartened by previous retellings’ watering down of the story’s more grim aspects will most certainly be gratified to see the tome’s ruthless life-or-death struggles preserved with fangs intact.
Noah‘s revisionism is more of a psychological nature. Aronofsky, who co-wrote the film’s screenplay with his The Fountain collaborator Ari Handel, is more interested in the storm brewing inside Noah’s head than in the cataclysmic flood, even though the actual deluge is rendered with tactile ferocity. For a movie this intent in exploring shopworn material from a novel perspective, Noah still indulges in some awe-inspiring, old-fashioned spectacle. (I’ll keep the details vague, but there are even mythical beings that would feel right at home in a Peter Jackson film.) Those scenes, though, are mere narrative flourishes when compared to the potent morality play that unfolds once Noah and his family are at sea on their mammoth barge. Could this man of God be capable of doing something monstrous to serve his deity?
Unencumbered by a duty to appease the faithful, though still mindful of the source material’s meaning to a Christian audience, Aronofsky is free to roam untethered in all kinds of unexpected directions. Which is not to say everything works in the antediluvian society he has erected. Aronofsky and Handel attempt to give more nuance to the rudderless, faceless mass of sinners Noah has to contend with before setting out on his mission. To that end, they introduce Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), the ruler of the denizens destined to become fish food. The character actor imbues the corrupted king with the cunning the role demands, but he remains largely underdeveloped. Even more underused is Anthony Hopkins, who checks in for an extended cameo as Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather. Often reduced to comic-relief status, the Oscar winner is essentially dead weight in a story to which he only serves as a plot device, albeit a pivotal one.
What does emerge in compelling fashion is a portrait of Noah’s family as a dysfunctional clan with deep-seated emotional scars. Rather than sweeping the particulars of how Noah’s children are going to set about repopulating mankind, Aronofsky deals with the delicate subject matter head on, refusing to take no easy way out of the dilemma Noah faces: He has three boys and only one girl, unrelated by blood, whom he rescued when she was little. (That would be Ila, played as a young woman by Emma Watson.)
It’s an audacious secular take on the characters that nevertheless weaves in the presence of the Almighty as a crucial part of its fabric, an approach that has prompted detractors to dismiss the film as neither here not there, too fixated on exploring man’s relationship with God to appeal to non-Christians and too much of a departure from the text to satisfy devout churchgoers. What on Earth are they talking about? It’s precisely this sobering, disquieting dichotomy, this willingness to encompass these warring internal impulses, that makes Noah such a fascinating film. To skeptics on both sides of the argument, leave your preconceptions at the door and prepare to take a leap of faith. A very 420-friendly leap of faith.
Noah floods into theaters, in both regular showings and IMAX engagements, March 28.