Once upon a time there was a genre of film called the Bible Epic. More devourers of money than movies proper, they went the way all such genres eventually do: imploding on their own gluttonous mass and dragged kicking and screaming into a hell of their own making. The rise of European cinema in America had a lot to do with it. The American New Wave had much more. But the Bible Epic was doomed just like its dear bedfellow, the sword-and-sandal film, both with nowhere to go but the way of the Romans so often depicted with a curious confusion in both genres: self-immolation, a death from inside attempts to fly closer and closer to the sun without any sense of themselves. If the Bible Epic needed a few extraneous factors circling like vultures to truly crash-and-burn, that’s only insofar as reacting to these outside influences caused a need for even more strained, draggy, self-indulgent screenplays that insisted all the louder and prouder that they were just hot shit to increasingly deaf ears.
This strategy didn’t work, but like a crippled, bloody phoenix a movie genre can rise from the dust of its fore-bearers even with precisely zero reason. About fifteen years ago Gladiator ushered in a new era of middlebrow dramas masquerading as sword-and-sandal films for a double-dose of self-insulating respect: the individualistic, melodramatic characters of theater drama combined with the ever-amorphous “historical basis” and grandstanding, insistent anthemic quality of plain ol’ fashioned good guys killing bad guys, America’s favorite past-time. In other words, the trend produced films that put just about every ounce of their effort into safe, secure, respectable“maturity” at the expense of invention or raw feeling. Now that America came to its senses and let the genre stay dead, some production company somewhere reacted by not coming to its senses and saying “well, loose the swordplay, add the god, for god breeds more special effects enhanced chaos than a lowly man with a sword ever could”. The idea for a new, prestigious, carefully streamlined, resolutely safe Bible Epic for middlebrow audiences was hatched and carefully manicured. And in walks Darren Aronofsky. Apparently, he didn’t get the memo.
Writing reviews of self-important epics gives me great pleasure and a lovely opportunity for injecting some snark into my otherwise ho-hum life. The two words I most looked forward to sprinkling this review with like too much salt and pepper were “neutered” and “waxworks”. If nothing else, I’m delighted to say that Aronofsky’s film is not only neither of these, but it actively bludgeons anything resembling “neutered” filmmaking to the death. In other words, Noah is an Aronofsky film to the core: a demented, delirious, feverish stew of fire-and-brimstone hellfire, expressionist imagery given not to reality but a world where metal and earth blend into an indecipherable whole, and downright massive, grandiose drama just overflowing at the seams. Of course, that’s not all – this is a proud kitchen-sink film, a melting pot of internal, suffocating grandeur and narcissist soliloquies and colors that are all over the place, from popping with high-contrast anger to muted, bled-out, and stricken of nuance or emotion. We get a black-and-crimson shadow-puppetry show about contorted, tormented rock Golems, and editing that comes less from logic than from whatever Aronofsky had for breakfast that morning. It is not in any sense of the word quotidian, and it often seems like it’s actively working less to render the Bible Epic anew than to put the final nail in the coffin and replace it with an imposter much more given to madness and foaming at the mouth. Whatever else Noah is, it is an experience, something so caught up in itself it can not for a moment care what you or I might think of it.
Now then, as for what I think about it. As much as I’m tempted to give myself to it and bask within, there’s a lot more at stake in the film. It’s not all free-wheeling visuality, for Aronofsky gives us a radical depiction of Noah himself to match. And here is where the word “waxworks” would have come in if it had applied one single bit. The base story is the classic tale – a man chosen by god to save all life on Earth excepting man, god’s biggest mistake and the one species that had sought to destroy the Earth by taking dominion over it. With his wife and children, he sets out to build a giant ark, as flamboyantly earthen as the film itself, capable of riding the waters of incoming destruction with two of every animal in tow. But in place of the self-indulgent self-superiority we expect we have something much more destructively compelling: self-indulgent self-hate. Aronofsky, a feeling, lived-in, maddening Russell Crowe at his best in maybe fifteen years in tow, sees Noah sequestered in stultifying survivor’s guilt and enraged belief keeled over. He’s entirely devout, and entirely given to cognitive dissonance, completely unsure of why he has been chosen to save humanity and entirely sure that humanity, him included, must die. The film openly confronts the gall of one family assuming they are somehow superior to the masses of the Earth scorned and scorched from existence for their destructive, impudent tendencies. The conclusion it reaches is a drag, for Aronofsky chickens out at the last minute of a sort of nihilist tone-poem of depressive fury. But the journey to get there is fascinating every-which way, with it’s depiction of Noah most rigorously demanding and rewarding of all.
Which brings us to the giant elephant-in-the-room “but” the whole review has been building toward; the film’s heaving grandiosity is also, in addition to anything else, self-cannibalizing. The film begins with a dreary seriousness that’s borderline stifling, and it only festers and grows from there. This is not a film that knows the word nuance, and while this thankfully gives way to some of Aronofsky’s more evocative flights of fancy, a little nuance never hurt. The price we pay for all that is good about the film is Aronofsky very much trying to imbue some of the theatricality of the Bible Epic back into a work that is wholly at odds with the genre’s chintzy fakery. The narrative eventually dovetails into conflicts upon conflicts upon conflicts aboard the arc. Noah’s quiet rage transforms into rampaging action as things start to insist upon themselves in ways that feel no longer like the work of a madman flaunting all convention than the un-earned work of a madman cribbing dollar-store fantasy for no apparent reason, overwrought theatrical gestures and messy, goddamn silly histrionics, and all. Of course, Aronofsky’s vision has far more in the way of fleshy, sweltering psychosis than most dollar-store fantasy, but being Darren Aronofsky, he just doesn’t know when to say when.
I’m not quite sure “when” either, as the film’s penchant for generally non-nuanced lunacy helps and hinders the film in equal measure and gives it a certain off-the-rails fascination that’s undeniable. But I suspect the cut-off was somewhere before the garishly sentimental conclusion that borders on parody. A sliver of me still wants to imagine this sort of parody is where the film was going, but nothing about the whole of it supports anything satirical in the slightest. It’s more a Bible Epic torn down to its grimy, theatrical roots and pushed to the extreme. If this pushes Aronofsky to cut on emotion rather than logic in a bold rejection of Hollywood continuity editing as he fully immerses himself in the big emotions of his piece, it also gives him a penchant for moralization and melodrama that would have been better left at the door.
So the film is a bit of a wash, but it’s a glorious, monstrous wash at that. It’s not particularly good, if good has anything to do with “cohesive”. It’s well-made for dozens of different purposes that clash like kings fighting over something as arbitrary as a penny. But it does each and every one of those things aggressively and un-apologetically, and that is something in this day and age of Hollywood films that do nothing else aggressively but sand-off their own aggressiveness. Noah is very obviously a personal work for Aronofsky, even if it suggests what is most personal to him is seeing what kind of nonsense he can scrounge up with a big budget to entertain himself behind closed doors. I have no doubt this is exactly the film Aronofsky wanted to make, and it is positively enrapturing to watch, totally gung-ho in its own operatic momentum and concussively restless like little else. It’s equal parts mythic allegory of human duress, pungent psychoanalysis, god-smacked epic, anarchist’s cookbook, and lunatic art film, a little bit for anyone and much too much for everyone. It refuses to stop for anyone. I am utterly glad to have Darren Aronofsky back from his (largely successful) dalliance with respectable filmmaking. Now get out of here Mr. Aronofsky. You clearly need a nap
Score: 7/10, or so my gut tells me. But besting the film by wrangling it into submission long enough to brand it with a score seems like a Pyrrhic victory to me.a