Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is Ridley Scott’s bold, altogether strange vision of the story of Moses and Ramses. It’s a strikingly personal yet oddly cold film, a fitting classification for many of Scott’s epics over the years. In attempting to tell a religious story without necessarily making the story explicitly about Moses and his experiences with God, Scott avoids the ever-familiar narrative in favor of a story about familial division, faith, and the pursuit of a greater understanding of one’s purpose. It’s a film many have dismissed as too unsure of its own ambition, but it never strays from the heart of its story, always surrounding Christian Bale’s Moses with a narrative of compassion and great feeling. Every time he’s on screen, he’s magnetic. He carries the film through its distanced, rigid approach, and makes it a compellingly inconsistent watch.
The story opens in 1300 B.C.E. Egypt, under the rule of Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro), father of Ramses (Joel Edgerton). The people live in poverty while the city is under wealthy rule, with slaves working on the pyramids and statues with the powerful sitting in their lavish palaces admiring the hard, unrewarded work. Moses (Christian Bale) acts as a warrior and protector of Ramses, particularly in battle as Ramses faces death only for Moses to save him. Seti admits that Moses is the better man, one that he would appreciate more as his son. Sure enough, a sickness strikes and Ramses rises to power, changing the fabric of the country as his iron fist-like regime turns against the people and lets them starve and suffer. Upon finding out Moses’ Hebrew heritage, Ramses banishes his spiritual brother from their city and forces him to survive. Nine years pass, Moses marries, and he attempts to return to free the 600,000 slaves under the oppression of Ramses.
Exodus attempts to capture the spirit of many swords-and-sandals epics of cinematic yesteryear, with visual and thematic comparisons to The Ten Commandments, Spartacus, and The Last Temptation of Christ. Here, we are presented with a conflicted protagonist that questions God and appears crazy to be talking with such a figure. Scott and his writers present God as a petulant, whiny 12-year old boy with a British accent, an absurdly effective tactic that makes his scenes compelling and all the more challenging for religious viewers. There’s never a sense of simplifying or pandering the story in order to cater to one viewpoint; rather, by stripping the film of much of its religious undertones and instead only hinting at the matter (as far as I can tell, the boy never refers to himself as God, nor do others address Him as a Christian figure), it makes for a unique re-telling of a familiar tale in both culture and cinema.
The film relies on melodrama and extended scenes of discussing slavery and its ramifications on the people. Repetition ensues, and the film bogs itself down with how mechanical and formulaic the plagues feel when they are introduced. They each breeze by without much nuance and hinder the film’s capable, assertive first act. The anchor that keeps the film grounded, though, and the element that makes the narrative all the more compelling, is Christian Bale. He delivers a great performance, an anointment that feels increasingly commonplace in a career full of them. Moses, under his guise, becomes a man conflicted with God and His ways and knows that the only way his mission can be accomplished is through his own will, ultimately. Joel Edgerton’s Ramses has a few glimpses of humanity, particularly with his son, but his performance never elevates past archetypal villain. I still admire Ridley Scott’s vision for such a divisive, and ultimately dismissed, film, since he makes Exodus: Gods and Kings a character-driven spectacle that’s a notch above his recent misfires.
Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)