Monday, March 31, 2014

Noah / *** (2014)

It’s just as well that the biblical legend of Noah, the man whom the great creator would task with building the Ark to save animals from Earth’s greatest flood, would arrive in the hands of Darren Aronofsky. Already a specialist at character studies revolved around people obsessed with nearly infeasible tasks, here is a filmmaker who takes less direct an approach than most of his contemporaries would with the material, and instead discovers a persona withered by a sense of deep inner turmoil. That it finds the time to descend into this prospect is astonishing given the urgency of the sweeping narrative, but it justifies the crusade with one notable takeaway: when we pit man against creation, is there anyone strong enough to thoroughly fulfill the will of a God whose silence can be harsh and mocking?

Aronofsky’s fearless and bewildering “Noah” follows this thread to a degree of intense confidence. Audiences expecting a literal analysis of a treasured story will no doubt be overwhelmed with feelings of betrayal here, in a movie that is designed as a bleak departure from a source often viewed with inspirational pragmatism. The walkouts witnessed at a recent screening suggest a trend that may hurt potential financial prospects, but perhaps they also underline something more unfortunate: the inability in some moviegoers, even now, to embrace creative license in a medium destined to represent the diverging voices of film artists. For many of us, the stories of the Bible – the few we actually do know, that is – exist more as elaborate morality fables calling out for new interpretations, and now comes the first in a long while that dares to peer beyond the words in order to discover a meaning relative to our time. That may not make it the most successful film of its kind by any measure, but it does warrant reflection in an age of filmmaking starved for something different.

An elaborate prologue sets the tone. Following God’s infamous cast-off of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, the couple’s apparent children inherit the Earth as heirs to the dichotomous possibilities of human beings. In one corner is a man who envelops all in his path with a destructive fist, and in the other is one who strives to hold light up in a world overrun with darkness. Noah, the son of the latter, is tasked with greatness at an early age before his father is murdered viciously, and an eyewitness account of the crime becomes a catalyst in a destiny seemingly written from birth: to assist the creator in cleansing the Earth from a humanity that has abandoned all nobility.

As an adult, overlooking a world of waste and forsaken dreams, Noah has distinctive visions. In them, he sees his world consumed by water, and the bodies of men floating through their currents like vessels of past misdeeds. These visions are shared with an old relative named Methuselah (played sublimely by the great Anthony Hopkins), who resides towards the top of a lone peak covered in vegetation that seems to jut out in protest to the nearby desolate landscape. He and Noah exchange enigmatic dialogue that is clever in the way it reveals all without actually being precise, and when news of the impossible task of building an Ark is shared with his wife and children, they unite in a quiet bond to assist in that drastic undertaking. The threat of hostility emerges from a warrior king named Tubal-Cain (Ray-Winstone), who vows to take Noah’s ship and save his people before they are “cleansed” to death by God’s will. And somewhere in that process, a lone seed preserved from Eden is given to the proposed builder as sort of a foundational gesture to jumpstart the process; the movie reveals its possibilities in a sequence in which that seed evolves into a lush oasis in a matter of seconds. God, it seems, isn’t one to slack off on getting his plans off the ground.

The screenplay does not take flattering liberties with its portrayals. A focused and collected sort, Noah is played as an adult by Russell Crowe, in a performance of almost alarming composure. Sometimes there are moments where we doubt there is an actual human soul behind the face, so hollow and unsympathetic is his conviction; in many key exchanges with characters, emotions appear as if evaporated, even though his eyes seem to recall the glory days of a more joyous existence. Aronofsky undoubtedly demands this kind of approach to highlight the obsessed conviction of his leads, and in his Noah is the tattered image of a mortal man consumed by the fate of his ancestry. We have seen Crowe in this position before, but which much more effective results: in Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator,” that same stalwart assurance seemed more believable in a context that allowed him to wither progressively over time. The women of the movie, however, are mesmerizing; Emma Watson as Noah’s adopted daughter Ila has several amazing scenes where she is forced to balance her bleak reality with tearful hysteria, and Jennifer Connelly as the loving wife is so heartbreakingly effective in the third act that it adds resonance to a climax that might have otherwise been pointlessly downtrodden.

The visual scope is grandiose, often occupied by modern touches that recall the audacious textures of “The Fountain” (is the movie actually taking place in Biblical times, though, or a post-apocalyptic future?). One notable design: giant beings made of rock referred to as the “Watchers,” which apparently were once angels that came to Earth to assist mankind before being cursed with murky forms. The Ark itself is not a polished vessel with elaborate craftsmanship, but appears as primitive and indistinct, the endeavor of Watchers and humans who build out of necessity rather than skill. The manner in which the ship acquires its important residents – the animals themselves – comes off as a copout in a narrative that sidesteps potential subplots, but the flood itself is visualized with a creative twist, and I was alarmed at how effective the movie staged the key climactic sequence without making it seem too overzealous for the story. This is a director whose ventures into the mainstream are new, but judging on the example of “Noah,” blockbusters may have a prosperous future as he continues to adapt to them.

What the movie ultimately says, however, may be too cynical and overbearing to resonate in the theaters, where moviegoers these days are more receptive to one-not perceptions; it has better prospects though rental and DVD, where underdogs find more lasting success through word of mouth. In either case, who will find the movie’s unending contempt fully justifiable? Much of this material is unpleasant and murky, even by Aronofsky’s tragic standard. Towards the end of the film, there is even a moment so startling that its irony is almost lost behind a haze of nihilism; in it, Noah insists that Ila’s unborn child be murdered upon delivery if it turns out to be a girl, and his conviction leads to a scene where the creator’s apparent messenger stands atop the Ark while holding a dagger above the newborn’s temple. The reason? Mankind’s final punishment, I guess, is that it will not endure beyond their elaborate rescue of animals. One imagines this impulse isn’t so much out of character for Noah, however, as it is just the tipping point in a screenplay that suspects he has fully collapsed under the influence of God’s impudent demands.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Adventure/Drama (US); 2014; Rated PG-13 for; Running Time: 138 Minutes

Russell Crowe: Noah
Jennifer Connelly: Naameh
Ray-Winstone: Tubal-Cain
Anthony Hopkins: Methuselah
Emma Watson: Ila
Logan Lerman: Ham
Douglas Booth: Shem

Produced by
Darren Aronofsky, Chris Brigham, Scott Franklin, Ari Handel, Amy Herman, Arnon Milchan and Mary ParentDirected by Darren Aronofsky; Written by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel

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