Let It Flow: Darren Aronofsky's Noah
Reductionist statements about an artist’s body of work are a hacks' writing tool. Sure, you can point out that Scorsese's filmography is littered with conflicts of temptation and redemption, Speilberg’s about a wonder that comes from mundanity, James Cameron is about chasing technology in pursuit of narration, Tarantino about a white privilege to use the N-Word. But distilling these themes down to a simple statement is the lazy tool of untalented writers.
Darren Aronofsky’s muse is obsession.
Since his work on The Wrestler, Aronofsky’s films are less about the obsession of the universe and the secrets therein, but in one person’s pursuit of perfection; of impossible standards set forth by the individual. In the sibling set of films, The Wrestler and Black Swan, Aronofsky pushes the limits of a 50 something year old wrestler, and a 20 something ballerina, in smaller stories relying on the practical nature of filmmaking. But Aronofsky wasn’t done with the art of obsession, and followed up those acclaimed movies with the potential oddball of his filmography, 2014’s Noah.
Noah proves that Aronofsky doesn’t do anything you’d expect of a big name director. It’s got all the earmarks of a ‘one for them’ style movie, a gigantic studio production a filmmaker makes to allow for some freedom in future artistic pursuits. But as opposed to a superhero movie or a summer blockbuster, Aronofsky made an old school biblical epic, upgraded with his love for nature, and imbued with the strands of obsession of his most recent work.
The picture finds Russell Crowe in the title role, the last intended son to be the shareholder of the relics of the Garden of Eden that indicate him as a Son Of Adam. Noah is descendant of the line of Seth, the son of Adam not featured in the story of Cain and Abel. He is witness to the murder of his father by Tubal-Cain, descendant of Cain, a king of industrial people who seek to steal the light of the creator in the form of crystal balls of light known as tzorah. Noah seeks shelter in the wilderness, seeing himself as a keeper of the world, and grows into a man with a wife and children of his own. A prophetic dream of the world covered in damp blood under Noah’s feet, in the shadow of his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). Noah and his wife, Naameh, set out with their children, Shem, Ham and Japheth.
During their journey, they see the ruins of the world, and meet a young child left for dead by the people of Tubal-Cain, Ila. Noah’s family runs afoul of The Watchers, fallen angels removed of grace, entombed in the soul and soil of the earth they were cast to after being expelled from paradise. A watcher takes exception to the rulings of their leader, and escorts Noah to the shadow of Methuselah, as repayment for Methuselah’s kindness when descendants of Cain had once sought to destroy them. They reach their destination, and Methuselah provides the key to understanding Noah’s dreams - of the coming flood that only the animals of the world that the Creator deems worthy of this planet. Methuselah not only provides guidance, but a seed, that sprouts the resources for Noah and the assembled Watchers will need to build an ark of salvation.
The film skips forward as the ark nears completion, with Noah’s now adult children (Doublas Booth as Shem, Logan Lerman as Ham and Emma Watson as Ila, his now adopted daughter) assists Noah and the Watchers as the creatures of the world arrive. Their arrival is followed shortly by that of Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), aware of the world's increasing inhospitable, who seeks a place for him and his people on the ark. A series of conflicts arise, between Ham and his desire for the love of his wife such as that between his brother Shem and Ila, and between Tubal-cain, his vicious treatment of people and the world of the Creator, and Noah’s desire to see the Creator’s vision of a world without man achieved.
From a storytelling perspective, Aronofsky spends his time in the parts of the story the bible hand waves over. The construction of the ark isn’t as important as the decision Noah makes to build it; the boarding of the ark less a parade and more a mob. The previously mentioned tzorah, frequently agreed upon as a Hebrew translation for ‘window’, powers the industrialization of Tubal-cain’s world but is also the key light in the darkness in Noah’s times of need. Aronofsky also does away with the family connections we assume of the Noah story, of dutiful son’s and their wives, with quarreling sons and a Noah obsessed with seeing the Creators vision thru. Rather than a full assortment of Sons and Daughter-in-Laws, Ila is presented as barren, and a ‘wedding gift’ from Methuselah gives her back her fertility - a fertility that threatens Noah’s visions if Ila gives birth to a daughter.
This threat makes Noah murderous, threatening his kin as they attempt to disembark the ark in a lifeboat, and Noah appears committed to the vision if not presented with the threat of a stowaway Tubal-cain, determined to use the survivors of Noah’s mission as fuel for his new world, Naameh and Ila as his new brides to repopulate the world. Tubal-cain has spent the voyage being nursed by Ham, disillusioned with his father’s vision after seeing truly innocent people left for dead and hearing the cries of those drowned in the flood. In the final conflict, Ham makes the choice to stand by the vision of his family, reluctant at best. During this conflict, Ila gives birth - not to a single daughter, but twin sisters, the Creator providing for Noah’s sons left without wives due to the flood. Noah seeks to strike them down, but then reconciles the blood of his kin with a kiss to their head, seeing their arrival as the will of the Creator, even if at the cost of his family's love and trust.
Aronofsky is secular is in handling of sacred texts - Noah’s mission is as much a edict from the Creator as it is an ode to the responsibility of modern men in the face of climate change and a mass extinction that currently endangers the species of the planet. This secularism became an outrage magnet, as Aronofsky is careful to never call the higher power anything other than ‘The Creator’, avoiding God, Lord, Yahweh or any of hundreds of other permutations of Abrahmic titles. His translation of the tzorah as a virtually atomic substance makes the biblical epic potentially dystopian futuristic, the world of Tubal-cain’s industrialization the ruins of our modern world.
The fallen angels of the world, the Nephilim, beautifully animated creatures in the mold of Ray Harryhausen’s classic stop motion, reimagine the myth of The Golem - the creatures of the planet, either evolutions or ancestors of our current fossil record, a beautifully rendered collaboration between Aronofsky and the VFX art houses of Hollywood. This is punctuated by a segment of the retelling of Genesis, as Noah shows the history of the world in a beautiful shutter frame style visual that denotes the passage of time.
But the true heart of Aronfsky’s work is his characterization of Noah - eccentric in the most generous tellings of the story - is just straight up, as my friend Becky Belzille called him recently, a nut job. A nut job, portrayed by one of the premier nut jobs in all of Hollywood. Crowe combines with Aronofsky’s characterization as a man always unhinged, by his destiny as the last son of Seth, by his failures to prevent the worlds collapse, and by the threat his own kin might provide The Creators vision. It allows Crowe the kind of scene chewing he’s become known for in recent years, but in it’s quieter moments of contemplation, you see a steely unnerving as the ugly truth of the world is presented to Noah, and his step back from the abyss, a resolution towards his own grace.
In the hands of Darren Aronofsky, the classical Hollywood tradition of the biblical epic becomes a logical piece of the puzzle in the vision of an artist. He treads on well worn themes in his filmography, and adds in an impressive visual mastery that is logical in the world he builds. In a environment of intellectual properties, Aronofsky makes an argument that the hottest IP might just be the most epic stories, that forge the faith of hordes around the world - and he’s unafraid to use those stories to say something about what we should consider in our own future instead of simply just reflecting on them as a part of our past.