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Review: Darren Aronofsky's 'Noah' Starring Russell Crowe, Emma Watson, Jennifer Connelly & More

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by Charlie Schmidlin
March 27, 2014 11:09 AM
21 Comments
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Only a few pages long and with the barest of details, the Genesis tale of Noah’s Ark is one the original peaks of brevity. A succinct story of an apocalypse and its aftermath, one can easily see why the themes of death and rebirth attracted Darren Aronofsky to a film adaptation. But “Noah” is no mere second attempt at “The Fountain." It is instead a grounded journey outwards on ideas of regret, mercy, and revenge, and at 139 minutes the film makes every attempt, coherent or not, to thoroughly address each one.

Living in tattered huts and fending off the vicious Wild Men (descended from Adam and Eve and turned wicked), Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family appear close neighbors to the barren wastelands of Cormac McCarthy in one scene, and the sprawling skies of “Walkabout” the next. They scavenge, living in constant fear of their surroundings—at least until Noah receives a nighttime sign from God warning of an Earth-wide flood and answers the call. Of course, the family is unusually scrubbed-up and clean for such a deprived state of being, but such is the odd struggle Aronofsky faces with his film. At every turn, the plot hinges on coincidence and the very definition of divine intervention; the “Black Swan” director then aims to carve a path dark and naturalistic enough while still retaining a mythical glow.

This approach serves to throw off the film in key moments. When Crowe—finely-tuned for Aronofsky as the pressure of his mission starts to mount—completes a moody scene with a bewildered look upwards as a flute flourish plays, it betrays the tone. Similarly so with Anthony Hopkins as Noah’s grandfather Methuselah, an utterly useless character included only to dole out a plot twist, sleep and pick berries (also possibly the only joke in the film). However, for a good stretch the trio of Crowe, Jennifer Connelly as Noah’s wife Naameh, and Emma Watson as the orphan Ila steady the tonal balance terrifically.

Serene but sanded away to a nervous edge, Connelly conveys Naameh’s hesitant trust toward her husband with a steady hand. Concerned with Noah’s growing single-minded goal, her character slowly shifts into the role of protector for Ila and her sons Shem (a shockingly bland Douglas Booth) and Ham (Logan Lerman, looking lost). With Watson, the two women in fact assume the emotional core of the film—a challenge that both actresses easily match. Where Crowe’s performance fails, however, luckily Aronofsky’s trademark visual style fills in: since the main storyline focuses on Noah’s changing perspective to the world, the camera (executed with skill by DP Matthew Libatique) pins to the actor’s lumbering back as he witnesses the various horrors on earth.

Provided with studio support and a team of talented artists behind him (including production designer Mark Friedberg who worked on “Synecdoche, New York”), Aronofsky decidedly does not skimp on the exact nature of those horrors. Mens wickedness is glimpsed through a series of sequences—some real, some imagined—as Noah leaves the site of the Ark to the territory beyond: a bloody skirmish between starved mobs for a live animal’s meat, wanton murder, the savage trampling of a young girl as the flood nears. Later, after the flood has begun, what sounds like a sharp wind inside the Ark turns out to be the screams outside of drowning men and women; the next image—of a massive boulder barely above water and covered with people— ranks among Aronofsky’s most affecting feats.

After the flood passes though, and the film settles down into the claustrophobia of the Ark, Aronofsky reveals how quickly he can betray his lead characters. A quick narrative turn flips the character of Noah into such a laughable and left-field form that any tension or fear for him or his family quickly evaporates. Even as two family members approach their potential deaths, one is left wondering how we arrived at this melodramatic point only ten minutes before. And Clint Mansell’s deafening score doesn’t help: throughout, the usually reliable composer filters what sounds like unused score fragments from “The Fountain” and jacks it up to a deafening volume. In the latter half, his overbearing orchestral stabs only worsen the content.

As it happens though, the most impressive aspects of “Noah” lie in its two major deviations from the source material, and both, tellingly, are explored during the first two-thirds of the film. “Walkers”—fallen angels transformed into golem beings—are introduced early on, first as enemies then allies of Noah in building the Ark. Their creaky, almost stop-motion movements and Treebeard-esque speech dodge explanation; they exist simply because they do, and the untold fantasy dynamic works wonderfully. Their effect also helps to glide over the more contentious points of the Ark tale—its size and construction, the two-by-two animal storage of every species—but unfortunately they can’t mask the extremely poor CGI work on the wildlife, some of the worst I’ve glimpsed in a film this year.

Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), the forger of weapons and a descendent of Cain, is the other surprisingly powerful addition to the tale. Rather than let nature remain the sole obstacle in Noah’s path, Aronofsky (and co-writer Ari Handel) incorporate Winstone as an villainous, abandoned believer in God—one whose rage toward Noah comes from pure jealousy and self-hatred. It’s a seething, well-rendered performance, brought to life by some very smart choices by Aronofsky, including a one-take shot that follows Winstone whispering pitifully to God in his tent, and then out in the pouring rain to rally his scorned troops against Noah.

When focused on the natural world and the internal thoughts of its characters, “Noah” positively crackles with the energy of a filmmaker inspired by a new perspective on classic material. As Noah recalls the beginning of existence to his children, the screen goes dark. Then, Aronofsky charts the shifting and evolving environments of Earth through gorgeous time-lapse photography across continents and creatures, different in approach to “Tree of Life” but just as stunning; another standout sequence occurs as the flood first hits the Ark in four gargantuan waves—a perfect blend of tension, character, and visual mastery on Aronofsky’s part. But the latter half of the film, turgid and hamfisted throughout, cripples the film so severely that it makes one thankful for the added elements to Noah’s story. They may not fall in line with the source material, but they deliver a fine case for creative license when such a confused, uninvolving finish awaits. [C+]



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21 Comments

  • Lynne | April 4, 2014 4:30 AMReply

    Has to be among the worst movies I have ever seen. These fallen angels that look like mutated transformers...laughable. So bad I walked out before the end. Absolutely no comparison to the story of Noah's ark.

  • eddie lydecker | April 3, 2014 11:41 PMReply

    Hey Squeesh, to a certain extent i agree with The Hamster, the films you girl-tioned are good but not great, Aronofsky is an over-rated film-maker.

  • jervaise brooke hamster | April 3, 2014 10:49 PMReply

    All of Darren Aronofskys films are ludicrously over-rated garbage.

  • squeesh | April 3, 2014 11:15 PM

    Obviously,you haven't seen PI or Requiem For A Dream---both good,intense, and truly disturbing films---they live up to the hype.

  • jervaise brooke hamster | April 3, 2014 10:47 PMReply

    I have always respected Russell Crowes rampaging heterosexuality but in virtually every other way the geezer is a bloody ludicrous joke.

  • jervaise brooke hamster | April 3, 2014 10:45 PMReply

    Ray Winstone and Anthony Hopkins are both worthless piles of horse-shit specifically because they are British

  • jervaise brooke hamster | April 3, 2014 10:40 PMReply

    I want to bugger Emma Wat-daughter (as the bird was in 2008 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously), such a shame shes British rubbish though. By the way, i had to change the second syllable of her surname because of my murderous homo-phobia, just to clarify.

  • jervaise brooke hamster | April 3, 2014 10:37 PMReply

    I want to bugger Jennifer Connelly (as the bird was in 1988 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously), what an amazing babe she was 26 years ago.

  • Joan Kennedy | March 30, 2014 11:34 AMReply

    "Hamfisted" perfectly summarizes this film and it's filmmaker.

  • Alp | April 3, 2014 9:33 PM

    Matt, you wouldn't consider DA's films hamfisted because you are what the kids call these days a "giggling fanboy."

    The "you didn't do research" rebuttal won't work on me, son: when it comes to theology and film theory, I have an intrinsic understanding of both worlds.

    And believe you me: Aronofsky's body of work is indeed hamfisted. Let's just call it "your word against mine" and leave it at that.

  • Matt | April 2, 2014 10:32 AM

    Except for all those amazing films he makes that you clearly don't get. Which is OK, but "hamfisted" is not a word I'd use to describe a single scene in any Aronofsky film. Granted this was not his best work, but it was very far from "hamfisted". And in response to the reviewer, "The Watchers" are very directly in the Bible. Mentioned many times in the old testament. Granted not as golem creatures, but you are like the 100th person to criticize this movie and talk about it's deviation from things you didn't bother to research so you shouldn't be talking on them.

  • morgan | March 29, 2014 7:47 PMReply

    I thought the opposite to you - the watchers and Ray Winstone's character were tired hollywood cliches grafted into the story, with a tiresome effect. Tubal Cain's relationship with Ham seemed completely illogical and his presence in the ark was a major plot hole never addressed - especially since he'd hacked his way in. The scene where they all fought was unearned.
    I was disappointed the film didnt show the horror of the rising waters. It lurched from a few drops of rain straight into a lord of the rings battle scene with no build. Then suddenly everyone was dead and this implausible old fella had somehow made his way onto the ship after killing some angels. It was dumb.

  • Ann | March 28, 2014 6:10 PMReply

    I am glad this movie stars at least two Jewish actors (Jennifer Connelly, whose mother is Jewish, and Logan Lerman, who is 100% Jewish). As opposed to the upcoming Exodus, which has no Jews in it at all.

  • Fox | May 26, 2014 11:11 PM

    Sorry, your post looks a day late, Matt.

  • Matt | April 2, 2014 10:27 AM

    Me too. I judge all biblical themed movies solely based on how many jewish people are in it and how jewish they are cause I'm a tool like you. Oh no thats right, I'm not retarded.

  • Drag Me To Taco Bell | March 28, 2014 7:33 AMReply

    I agree on how laughable its tone-betraying character moments are, and was also impressed by some of the visual flourishes (creation story sequence in particular). But as a whole I thought the movie suffered more severely from its deep and frequent flaws than critics are letting on. This is a COLOSSAL mess almost on the scale of "Dune."

  • tyrannosaurus max | March 28, 2014 12:26 AMReply

    Why so much plot summary??

  • Doghouse | April 3, 2014 3:41 AM

    You don't know the story of Noah's ark? Are you kidding me?

  • Tyler | March 29, 2014 7:16 PM

    Why I never read Indiewire reviews until AFTER I have seen the film. These fellas have no respect for spoilers.

  • k | March 29, 2014 1:00 AM

    Never read their reviews! They always give away plot points and the summaries are way too in depth. Do yourself a favor and scroll to the bottom and check the grade and then leave.

  • Christian | March 27, 2014 12:48 PMReply

    Bummer..

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