In Noah, a raindrop crashes down near Russell Crowe as if it’s just left a bomber. That seems right, since God has essentially declared war on humanity. We have trashed His planet. Now He’s gonna trash us. Because Noah is a Darren Aronofsky movie, the retributive destruction is a bizarre and rather magnificent spectacle. Crowe’s burly, middle-aged Noah (600 is the new 49!) drinks some funky tea and envisions building a vessel that will save him, his family, and the animal kingdom from the floods God has warned will cleanse the planet. His fellow man? Oh, well.
Tens of thousands of people flee the storm and rush the vessel, while enormous beasts, made of stone, with many arms and light emanating from their chests and faces, stomp and swat them into pulp. Sequences like this are a real challenge for a director. He has to see past the fakery to give you awe. Part of what I found so dumb about World War Z was that the unrelenting droves of sprinting zombies weren’t even fit for a 10-year-old video game. There was no horror to any of the imagery.
All Aronofsky knows is horror. You watch these fake rock giants — they’re apparently fallen angels protecting Noah’s family — wiping out these fake citizens and you feel awe at both the physical and moral proportionality. Aronofsky is doing something new with the bellicosity of the blockbuster: principled savagery. There are two or three other sequences here in which the level of filmmaking and the spark of an idea will ignite, and you’ll think, as perhaps you’ve previously thought, that Aronofsky is alarmingly talented.
This is his sixth film in 16 years — Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, and Black Swan precede it — and they all have their moments. Noah does, too — when, for instance, Crowe’s voice narrates a dreamy, doomy montage paraphrased from the Book of Genesis. Or anytime the camerawork (by Aronofsky’s regular cinematographer, Matthew Libatique) is permitted to create a long shot of the spectacular, rectangular ark. (It bobs on the water like a floating garage.) Once, it floats in the rear of a wide shot where the foregrounded image features desperate, wailing people climbing a rock to nowhere. A painting of an image like that was the Hollywood blockbuster of the 1400s.
The movie dares to give us a depiction of faith that resides well outside religion. It’s spiritual. Noah takes his vision seriously. God, he believes, has told him mankind is to suffer, so suffer it does. His commitment actually veers into zealotry. When Crowe’s narration ends with him basically saying, “We’re all going to die,” the audience laughs. The sufferers include members of Noah’s own family. He and his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), have three boys, the two elder of whom, Shem (Douglas Booth) and Ham (Logan Lerman), are eager for children of their own. But Shem’s woman, Ila (Emma Watson), can’t conceive, and Ham’s search for love ends badly before the vessel even takes off, and for that he blames his father.
Aronofsky and his cowriter, Ari Handel, have whipped up all this strife, and none of it works. They’ve even put a stowaway on the ark, a conquering warlord who killed Noah’s father and is played with welcome brio by Ray Winstone. He’s the villain, and his villainy appeals to Ham’s filial distemper. But emotional storytelling doesn’t come naturally to Aronofsky. One sequence cuts between men tussling in one part of the ark and women handling childbirth in another. He might as well have colored the two halves pink and blue. Most of Connelly’s and Watson’s work on Noah amounts to discovering multiple ways to produce tears. Crowe, meanwhile, remains committed to the single-minded sort of performance that for the last four or five years has veered in and out of villainy. He’s never needed for us to like him. That’s his singular strength as a star. The intensity remains in his acting, but all the shading has gone out of it, the ambiguity. We don’t need to like who he’s playing. We do need to care. Crowe is committed to Noah’s crazed overcommitment. He’s just never allowed to see the man for the mania.
Aronofsky often relaxes dramatic problems with drugs, sex, or gruesomeness. The same is true with Noah. The stuff between the father and his sons, or the husband and his wife, is meant to illustrate the cost of Noah’s certitude: his family’s contempt. The movie is so committed to its assertion of evolution and its oblique environmentalism and conservationism, to living right — our protagonists appear to be vegans — that it loses sight of everything else. You watch the scenes of the digital masses trying and dying to get aboard the vessel and feel so much more than you do when Connelly pleads with Crowe to come to his senses. It’s the destruction here that turns Aronofsky on. He lives for the unhappy prophesying and gets a kick out of hordes ripping apart a live goat that’s just been hurled into a feral crowd.
The worry going in was that Noah would turn the Old Testament into 300. Aronofsky prefers a drearier kind of porn, the stuff that falls more at the Game of Thrones end of things. Noah wants to be taken seriously, but it’s not a serious movie. It’s a mishmash of kitsch and science fiction and political defensiveness, barely held together by Aronofsky’s hubristic talents. Eventually the skies open up, water falls in torrents, and the camera sails into outer space to show Earth pocked with restless gray swirls. We’re told God is the orchestrator of this meteorological acne. True enough, but God has a name, and it’s Darren Aronofsky. Noah is most certainly ambitious. He’s taken Chapters 6 through 9 of Genesis and applied a chaotic mix of digital wizardry and manly mumbo jumbo. (“The time for mercy is passed,” says Noah. “Now our punishment begins.”)
Aronofsky might be the greatest American director never to direct a great movie. You can always feel him trying, though. He’s going for greatness almost every time, and every time it wipes you out. You can feel him straining to carry the weight he’s put on himself. Sometimes the suspense comes from whether he’s thrown out his back. How he managed to keep going after 2000’s Requiem for a Dream is anyone’s guess. But more movies followed. The biggest swing among them, until Noah, was The Fountain, a film about life, death, and reincarnation that mistook having a vision for being a visionary. Noah wants to be enthralling entertainment and a contemplative work of art. But the trouble with Aronofsky is that he’s so determined to achieve both, he winds up with neither. It’s hard to be James Cameron, Peter Jackson, and Terrence Malick at the same time.
His most popular film, Black Swan, was as much about the struggle for excellence and ambition and the death drive as his other movies. But he managed to extract a trashy thriller from a high-minded world. He managed to go crazy and have fun. It isn’t that Aronofsky should always be entertaining us with his movies. But the prevailing creative tension in most of his work is that he should be studying while everyone else parties. The suffering in these movies extends to him and hearkens back to the math student he used to be: He has to show us the work. So he risks pretentiousness every time.
You feel for him, though. These are the movies of a director still trying to figuring out what kind of filmmaker to be. He fancies himself the Creator, on one hand. But really, he’s a version of Noah, tasked with performing a great act and tortured by it.
Cesar Chavez isn’t going for too much. It’s intimate and elemental. The movie tells the story of the American labor icon’s creation of the National Farm Workers Association and his fight for workers to be paid a living wage. The Mexican actor Diego Luna directed the movie. Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton are the credited screenwriters, and they don’t have to work too hard to find resonance between the film’s 1960s rural Southern California setting and the state of unions and hand-wringing over immigrant workers today. The movie trusts you to free-associate.
The Chavez that Michael Peña plays is mild-mannered and pacifist, but so determined to make change that he stints on his fatherly duties. It’s his only shortcoming and it haunts him. But the movie presents Chavez’s achievements as a community project. A woman named Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson) helped create the NFWA. Chavez’s wife, Helen (America Ferrara), and his brothers, Richard (Jacob Vargas) and Librado (Roberto Sosa), were at his side. And Senator Robert Kennedy (Jack Holmes) swoops in twice and aims his righteousness at the farm owners.
The film culminates with Chavez’s 25-day hunger strike and a mounting international boycott of table grapes. And it manages to get at that part of a moviegoer that craves justice. Nixon’s election is a boon for the farmers. The heartless owners, crooked law-enforcement guys, and compromised politicians are all white. And most of them wear horn-rimmed glasses, which in the movies have come to signify immorality if not downright evil — they’re racist eyewear. (The activists see just fine.) Here John Malkovich wears a pair. (He also wears a terrific grayish, curled wig.) The simmering grape grower he plays feels contempt for Chavez and kinship with him. Malkovich’s character immigrated from Eastern Europe, turned nothing into something, and feels like the NFWA wants to take what is his. This is the film’s most complex creation.
But the simplicity works here. This is a Mexican man making a film about a Chicano civil-rights activist. The point of view is rare, and Luna doesn’t use it for epicness. The movie isn’t exactly subtle (“I want to get my hands dirty” is a line typical of this Chavez), but it’s attuned to the stakes of the farmers’ plight and doesn’t need an interloper to shout on their behalf. Indeed, a white lawyer (Wes Bentley) arrives and remains part of the moral wallpaper.
I like the crackle of anger the movie passes on. It’s not cheap. Luna’s not trying to manipulate you. He’s working in a plain, realist style that incorporates some actual news footage into the proceedings and places Peña’s absorbing sense of understatement at the center. His fair-skinned baby’s face looks nothing like Chavez’s. But Luna understands that Peña has that rare quality in an actor — pure goodness. It’s as good as starriness, since even in movies that give him nothing to play — he was the FBI agent who played the impostor sheikh in American Hustle — Peña draws you in. He was heartbreakingly good with Nicolas Cage in World Trade Center and funnier than anybody else in 30 Minutes or Less. But these two movies weren’t hits, and the hits he’s been in haven’t given him a proper showcase.
This is a starring part, and he doesn’t act up a storm to get another. He doesn’t give it The Role of a Lifetime treatment. Luna really directs him well. He knows an audience will follow him. When Peña’s Chavez tears up while defending his aversion to radicalism in a speech to agitated farmworkers, you tear up. When he takes that hunger strike, your stomach grumbles. Sally Field and Hilary Swank are two of the only living actors capable of doing this to an audience: forging unbreakable sympathy. With Peña, the question is this: Are the movies brave enough to give him the chance he deserves? He’s a wonderful Cesar Chavez. He’d make a fantastic Noah, too.