Movie Review: 'Noah,' a Harrowing, Gut-Twisting Tale Worth Seeing

PHOTO: Jennifer Connelly, left, and Russell Crowe, right, are pictured in a still from "Noah."
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In the book of Genesis, the story of Noah and his ark is three chapters long. Three chapters that have inspired countless sermons, debates, even children's books.

Most importantly, for our purposes, it captured the imagination of a 13-year-old boy in Brooklyn, N.Y., named Darren Aronofsky, who wrote an award-winning poem about Noah's ark.

In other words, the writer-director, now 45, has been thinking about making Noah for most of his life.

If you're familiar with Aronofsky's work -- “Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Fountain,” “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan” -- then the notion that he would focus his idiosyncratic vision on this beloved yet simple biblical tale should have you quivering with anticipation.

What we get, at least in the beginning, is jarring in its visual cheesiness, as if created by overzealous film students eager to try some exciting new tricks. Production values aside, Aronofsky shows us that Cain's murder of his brother, Abel, begets a violent world in which man even turns on The Watchers -- the biblical Nephilim, or fallen angels. Aronofsky turns them into giant creatures made of stone, injecting a “Lord of the Rings”-type element into this already fantastical story.

Which brings us to the main story, and to Noah, played by Russell Crowe. The last descendant of Cain and Abel's brother, Seth, Noah and his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), live in a barren land with their three young boys.

Noah is a natural conservationist, imploring his sons to take from the land only what they need. He's also tough enough to fend off three attackers while at the same time, he's kind to animals. If you were a Creator looking for a man to help you start over, wouldn't Noah be your guy?

Noah has a dream, a disturbing vision in which the Creator -- the word "God" is never mentioned in this movie -- communicates to Noah that he's going to put an end to humanity. Unsure what to do with this information, another vision indicates Noah should seek out his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), the oldest living man on the planet. It is in Methuselah's company that the Creator's plan becomes clear: Noah must build an ark, one big enough to house two of every species on the planet, to save them from the cataclysm to come.

Aronofsky gives us a Noah narrative unlike any we have seen before. Crowe is not a kindly old man with a long white beard. He's a burly, thick, powerful, complex, tortured soul, driven by an abiding faith in the task at hand. This Noah doesn't shepherd animals onto his ark two-by-two: the animals come to him in droves. This is a Noah under siege by a descendant of Cain named Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), a violent man who feels abandoned by his creator and will survive by any means necessary. This is a Noah who hears every cry of the people who are abandoned outside of his ark but will not save them, because he has to let them die.

Noah is not about the animals. Despite its clumsy beginning, it's a deft and daring exploration of Noah and his family, a film teeming with meaningful artistic choices that both lauds and curses faith in the very same breath. It is the yin and yang of the human condition, and Aronofsky presents it as a harrowing, gut-twisting tale that's as emotionally moving as it is suspenseful and exciting.

Four out of five stars.

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