“Noah” is not your father’s biblical movie. It’s an art house epic that filters the story through director Darren “Black Swan” Aronofsky’s impressionistic style.
The best way I can describe “Noah” is emotionally ambitious. It takes a familiar tale and shines a new light on it by highlighting Noah’s spiritual quandary. In the film—which takes liberties with the biblical story—he’s a vegan prophet who grapples with doing God’s will while balancing the needs of all of humanity, particularly his family. The meaning of faith and the consequences of adhering to that faith are the film’s main thrust, but as interesting as that is, the movie feels like one thing when it is addressing the spiritual and quite another—possibly a “Lord of the Rings” flick—when it is in action movie mode.
The movie starts at the beginning. Literally.
After a quick recap of Old Testament highlights—the Creation, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and Cain vs Abel—we meet Noah, the last descendent of Adam and Eve’s good hearted son Seth. The world he lives in is a dangerous place, ruled by Cain’s bloodthirsty bloodline but Noah (Russell Crowe) and family (Jennifer Connelly, Douglas Booth, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman and Leo McHugh Carroll) live peacefully as nature loving, proto hippies. That is, until Noah has a disturbing apocalyptic dream. Consulting with his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) he determines The Creator wants him to build an ark and laden it with two of every creature on earth in advance of a great flood that will destroy mankind and the violence they perpetrate. It’s ultimate Mulligan—a do over for the planet—but Noah will have to make some troubling decisions to fulfill God’s will.
Some may criticize the movie for not being reverent enough, but Aronofsky treats the story as a living breathing thing and not an artifact from another time. The addition of a spectacular creation of the world sequence, as narrated by Noah, may annoy Creationists, but is a moving and beautiful retelling of the biblical story.
Aronofsky may play fast and loose with Noah’s story, but underlines the spirituality that is at the very heart of the tale as evidenced by the Seven Days of Creation scene.
He’s also aided by a terrific performance from Crowe.
Crowe’s been in a bit of a slump in recent years. The dangerous, complex actor of movies like “Gladiator” and “A Beautiful Mind” seemed to have taken a backseat to the performer who thought making “The Man with the Iron Fists” was a good idea. “Noah” is a nice reminder of Crowe’s delicate mix of fearsome masculinity and subtle sensitivity and his tortured performance hits Noah’s zealotry square on the head.
But having said that, Aronofsky moves in mysterious ways. He shot the epic almost entirely in close up and the flood scene could have used a bit more Cecil B. DeMille. Aronofsky means this to be a personal story of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, but it is still an end of the world movie. Despite the occasional Peter Jackson flourish—like the stone giants The Watchers and sweeping crane shots—“Noah” doesn’t feel as big as it should. It has big ideas, but the expected sweeping visuals aren’t there.
“Noah” is a thought-provoking take on a familiar story that will keep you guessing until the end credits roll.
Second acts in Hollywood are rare. Once an actor is infected with the stink of failure it’s hard to wash off, particularly when the fall from grace is very public and seen by many people as well earned.
In 1985 Mickey Rourke was being called the new Brando; by 1995 Hollywood wasn’t calling at all. His career flameout rivaled that of other Tinsel Town wash outs like Orson Welles and John Gilbert, two legendary performers who blew their shot at screen immortality with a combination of ego and bad choices. Couple career suicide with a volatile reputation, an interlude as a professional boxer which caused neurological damage and forever altered his once matinee idols looks and you have a Hollywood Babylon story that looks doomed to end
poorly. And it almost did, after fifteen years without a lead role in a film Rourke was a write off, Hollywood’s forgotten man, until director Darren Aronofsky crafted a role for him that allowed him to face his demons in a very public way. Call it primal screen therapy if you like, but his achingly honest portrayal of burned out wrestler Randy the Ram may just earn him an Oscar nod.
In The Wrestler Rourke plays an over-the-hill pro wrestler, a once famous athlete capable of filling Madison Square Gardens, now a raggedly collection of shin splits, aching bones and broken spirit. He ekes out a living doing small time matches in rec centers for the handful of die hards who remember his glory days, but the good times are a long distant memory. On his off hours he works part time in a grocery store and tries to court stripper Cassidy played by Marisa Tomei. When a heart attack sidelines his big chance—a rematch with his greatest rival on the twentieth anniversary of their MSG bout—he must face up to his decline and leave behind the only life he’s ever known. An attempt to reconnect with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) gives him little comfort and it seems he only has one chance at happiness—even if it kills him.
Sound depressing? Well it is, but it’s also a fascinating look at the
downside of fame which parallels Rourke’s own fall from grace. In the hands of another actor—Nicolas Cage was originally slated to play the part—Randy the Ram would be an interesting portrait of failure but Rourke brings a gravitas to the character that goes beyond mere characterization. His real life experience on fame’s downside gives him a unique perspective on Randy, allowing him to bring the shame of failed expectation to the forefront. When Randy is at his lowest point, living in reduced circumstances and making ends meet by working behind a deli counter, the shame of being recognized as a former hero, a fallen star, is a feeling Rourke has lived in real life and the scene in the film feels all the more real because of it.
The Wrestler doesn’t take the easy road. Aronofsky, best known for directing PI and Requiem for a Dream, is unflinching in his portrait of Randy and it can make for some uncomfortable viewing. We all know that wrestling is fake, but the toll—physical and emotional—it takes on its practitioners is very real.
The physical toll is easy to spot. Rourke’s face looks like he’s been beaten up by an angry plastic surgeon and his slouching walk belies years of extreme physical abuse both inside and outside of the ring. The emotional side of the film is just as powerful, but not painted in such broad strokes. Much of what Rourke does here is internal; the look on his face as he scans a sparsely attended autograph session, an ego buster of an event where he tries to hawk $5 photographs to a handful of former fans or a heartfelt speech to his daughter that relies on his fractured facial expressions as much as it does the words he’s saying. It’s all powerful stuff that takes us inside Randy’s fruitless search for honor, dignity and love.
The Wrestler, like so many of the Oscar movies released this year is a good film with an amazing central performance. Think Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married or the powerhouse trio of Amy Adams, Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt. They are all interesting-ish movies that are elevated by the acting. The Wrestler is a great film, but it wouldn’t approach the stellar heights it hits without Rourke.
I don’t know if this is the beginning of a comeback for him or not. There can’t be that many roles out there that can take advantage of the particular kind of pathos where art and real life collide, but The Wrestler should finally bring Rourke the kind of mainstream notice he deserves.