by Kelly J. Murphy
The first line of the song that plays over the closing credits of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah tells the audience, “Mercy is as mercy does.” Just a bit later, the song typifies mercy as the father’s act of standing under the bough (that may break) to care for and watch over his child. Aronofsky’s Noah depicts Noah’s reluctant, halting, trepidatious—and perhaps incomplete—journey from judgment to mercy, from condemnation to compassion: a transformation facilitated, in large part, through his fatherly instincts. Given the conversation Noah has with his step-daughter Ila and the visual hint of reconciliation with his wife Naameh near the film’s conclusion, Aronofsky gives his audience the same opportunity to arrive at mercy. In fact, one of the most intriguing supplements Aronofsky makes to the biblical account is his provision of a motive for Noah’s post-deluge drunkenness. Noah thought that the Creator wanted him to eradicate the human race, but he was unable to do so, feeling a compulsion to have mercy for the lives of his granddaughters, Ila’s twin girls born on the ark. Having failed the Creator, he now drinks himself into a stupor. By portraying Noah as a tragically broken figure, Aronofsky crafts a pitiful character. Noah seems to want its audience to see Noah’s assessment of his “failure” as a failing, a mistake. By doing so, it takes sides in the moral debate that fuels the film: contrary to Noah’s harsh judgment, human beings are not solely wicked, not irredeemably violent and therefore, not deserving of condemnation and eradication. Rather, the view espoused by Naamah and Ila, that human beings are capable of good, capable of mercy, and therefore deserving compassion and care is ultimately championed. But to arrive at this destination—a destination that brings the film into conformity with a contemporary liberal-to-progressive theology and politics that imagine human beings as capable of compassion and mercy, of growth and change—Aronofsky and his audience must forget much that transpires in the film.
Noah frequently relates the creation story. Each time, the story culminates in Cain’s murder of Abel. When Noah’s father tells this story to his son, life immediately imitates art when an army of the sons of Cain murders Noah’s father before his eyes because they want to invade the land he inhabits. When Noah tells this story to his family after they are inside the ark, riding the waves that engulf the earth and destroy all the life that teems upon it, Aronofsky uses his puppet-theatre device to emphasize the implication of the Cain-Abel narrative. Rather than seeing only the black silhouette of one man striking another with a rock against a vividly colored background, the audience sees these figures morph into several different kinds of soldiers, recognizable as combatants from significant military conflicts in global history. We are, this tableau insists, without a doubt, Cain and Abel.
Although the sons of Cain are the most vicious and violent characters in the film, depicted primarily as a rabid horde rather than discernible individuals, Noah and his sons are not exempt from this characterization of human depravity. During a scene where Noah is teaching his sons how to live on the earth in non-destructive ways, an injured animal, hunted by humans who live in a very different relation to the earth’s resources, races across the meadow and Noah immediately intervenes to rescue it from its pursuers. As a result, he must confront and kill three hunters. Lest the viewer comfortably distinguish hunting violence (“bad”) from defensive violence (“good”), Aronofsky makes a point of showing virtually identical wounds in the animal’s and one of the hunter’s respective legs.
During the film’s major battle scene, as the sons of Cain attempt to over-power Noah, a son of Seth, and enter the ark, there is no doubt that Noah is as fully capable of meting out lethal violence as any other character in the film. And with his realization that the leader of this army is the same man who killed his father, his battle fury changes from principled to personal in a flash. This scene is one of the dramatic high-points of the movie; it thrills with its special effects wizardry and dramatic tension. It makes us cheer Noah and the Watchers as they repel the sons of Cain in large part because Aronofsky has rendered the latter inhuman, less deserving of our care and concern, by depicting them as a nameless, faceless horde. This gesture is a common one in cinema as well as, all too familiarly and tragically, in theological and political discourse. The violent eradication of some people is necessary, justified, worthwhile, deserving of praise. In a film that wants us to think about the value of mercy in the face of human wickedness, what does it mean to entertain us with—that we are entertained by—violent spectacle?
Once on the ark, where Tubal-Cain has stowed away and begun to inflame Ham’s anger against his father, turning it into vengeful betrayal, the dynamics of the larger battle become more intimate as we see the hero and villain of the film—Noah and Tubal-Cain—struggle to the death. Once again, the audience likely worries about the survival of Noah and wishes for the death of Tubal-Cain. This may be troubled given the threat Noah poses to Ila’s children, being born at the exact same moment, but that only triggers an audience desire for the elimination of Noah in addition to the elimination of Tubal-Cain.
By the time Noah explains to his family that human beings should be seen not as the pinnacle of the Creator’s work, but rather as the cause of all the problems with the creation, the film has given the audience plenty of evidence to support this assessment. It is human beings who have introduced violence, destruction, cruelty and wickedness into the goodness of God’s creation. Human beings must be eradicated so that the goodness of creation can be restored. Noah’s mission has been to save the innocent mammals from the flood’s destruction and purify the earth. After all, even if a lion hunts a gazelle, no pride of lions ever tried to orchestrate the genocide of all gazelles. Noah understands his mission to include the extinction of the human race. It is for this reason that he has intentionally prevented his two youngest sons from bringing wives on the ark and has allowed Ila to come aboard only because he mistakenly thinks she is barren.
Noah’s moral vision is, most likely, to most viewers of the film, far too harsh, far too simplistic, far too heavy-handed. As Naameh and Ila insist, human beings may be wicked, but they are not only wicked; there is goodness in human beings. As Ham reminds Noah, he had abandoned an innocent young woman, and Ham’s potential wife, to die in the flood. As the viewer has seen, Methusaleh, Noah’s grandfather, a source of wisdom and blessing in the film, was washed away by a deluge of water. So, it is not only wickedness that is being eradicated.
To sharpen the competing moral visions, Aronofsky focuses on children. The initial glimpse into the draconian nature of Noah’s vision, into his madness (an obsessional madness that typifies characters across Aronofsky’s body of work), comes when Naameh realizes he has no intention of providing Ham with a wife. Her worry? That Ham will be denied the pleasures of children and grandchildren. Similarly, the dramatic climax of the film centers around Ila’s pregnancy and whether Noah will kill her twin girls. And in the final conversation between Noah and Ila, Aronofsky plays on the audience’s conviction that babies are innocent creatures who should only be responded to with love and care. The Innocent, Vulnerable Child, then, is the central rhetorical figure in the film’s morality play concerning judgment or mercy. Once Aronofsky introduces this figure, the audience is virtually prohibited from siding with Noah. Children and their well-being are conversation stoppers; there is no plausible argument for the endangerment or destruction of children. (Lee Edelman’s magisterial No Future makes this point, and draws out its implications, with searing insight.)
But the film should make us pause in our assessment of this obvious desire for children, this self-evident need to protect them, this “natural” wish to produce them. The first third of Noah characterizes humanity’s wickedness in relation to their destruction of the earth in a rather ham-fisted pro-environmentalism. It is Tubal-Cain, the villain of the piece, who speaks the words of dominion from Genesis that are most frequently used to justify exploitation of the earth’s resources and its animal inhabitants. If part of being in righteous relation to the Creator is demonstrating care for the world’s limited resources, then is the desire to have children, to reproduce, to guarantee a future human population, part of that righteousness—or contrary to it? In Aronofsky’s film, the earth’s resources are already under strain—if limited resources are an issue of concern, why this overwhelming desire to produce more people?
Noah also makes it clear that having children and the related desire to protect them often fuels violence. While Shem is the good son, the obedient child, through most of the film, he immediately turns against his father and threatens him with violence in order to protect his children. (And this commitment to protect “my children” should, of course, be read against the non-appropriative ethic insisted on during the first scene with Noah and his sons.) Similarly, the notion of tribe, of being someone in particular’s child, of being a son of Cain versus being a son of Seth, is a powerful trope in the film. Ila is not loved and protected because she has the face of a stranger that demands a response; no, she is brought into the ark because she has become like a daughter, a member of the clan, one of the “us” that comprises Noah’s family. The family, the enclosed unit of kinship and filiation, may generate care and concern, but, as the film shows us, it is a decidedly limited form of empathy. And, as the film also shows us, it is no guarantee of mercy. Fully consistent with the biblical text, whatever form of mercy Noah learned to extend to his granddaughters does nothing to transform his relationship with his son Ham.
In the film and the contemporary culture it addresses, children are understood as innocent and an unqualified good, but as rousing and impassioned as the speeches on their behalf are, and as manipulative as their endangerment in the narrative is, the film gives us sufficient reason to worry about whether the desire to have and protect them falls on the side of mercy or wickedness.
And we can’t forget that the bodies that speak those rousing and impassioned calls for mercy and compassion are female bodies, specifically maternal bodies. Mothers see the good and long to protect; fathers see failings and wield punishing blows. This archaic gendered division between judgment, as a male trait, and mercy, as a female one, should trouble us because it locks women into the role of mothering, into the role of care-taker, into the role of merciful self-sacrifice, while men are encouraged to be strong, independent, capable, autonomous agents who make the “tough” calls. It should also trouble us because the film raises serious questions about the correctness of this female perspective. After Noah discovers that Ila is not barren, and that the human race may survive the flood and be given a chance to continue its wicked ways, Naameh twice shouts that this situation is her fault, and that she takes the blame for it. If the flood, with its watery chaos, is a new creation, then Naameh is, in the logic of the film, a new Eve: not as the mother of humanity, but as the source of its perpetual self-destruction. While Methusaleh is technically responsible for this “mistake,” given that his blessing cured Ila’s barrenness (appropriating female fertility to male power), the film obscures this by having women name themselves as the responsible agents. If viewers side with Noah, then women find themselves once again responsible for humanity’s fall. If viewers side with Naameh and Ila, then women find themselves once again reinscribed in their role as merciful caretakers, speaking as loving Venus against violent Mars.
Given its devastating implications, no viewer is likely to give final credence to Noah’s ethical vision. And, ultimately, given its narrative arc, I don’t think Noah wants us to do so. But with its picture of environmental devastation, sexual violence, perpetual war and human cruelty, the film, to my eyes, makes a plausible case for Noah’s perspective. If we take the film seriously, then Noah is right: there is no good reason to save the human race. If we take human history seriously, reflecting particularly on the massive catastrophes of the twentieth and twenty-first century, there is no good reason to think that human beings are capable of overcoming the violence that seems to be their fundamental orientation. But as monstrous as Noah’s understanding of his purpose and the Creator’s intentions might be, Aronofsky does not portray him as a monster: the attentive viewer must genuinely grapple with Noah’s indictment of the human race. Noah gives us a plausible—if horrifying—view of human nature as well as a strong depiction of the inevitable—if monstrous—ethical perspective that should flow from that revelation. At the same time, it gives us a passionately articulated and dramatically enacted counter-argument. By drawing attention to humanity’s violent nature, while also making a case for the importance of mercy—by presenting multiple visions and voices, Noah is faithful to the preoccupations and the pedagogical practice of the biblical text. Without telling its audience what to think, Noah uses Noah to force its audience to grapple with the questions it raises.