This Way Out
God: what an enigma, huh? Sure, he’s vindictive, indiscriminate when choosing his victims, happy to employ genocide to make a point and, for an all seeing, all knowing being, slow to act – points that Ridley Scott ticks off to his credit (without providing a satisfactory explanation) but at least he gifted filmmakers the parting of the Red Sea. For the Lord knew that one day there’d be a filmmaker called Cecil B. DeMille, and that he and his followers, anxious to round off long and sometimes plodding biblical epics with a show stopping climax, would require an event of grandiosity and magnitude to wake patrons and send them home with a big, bloodthirsty smile on their face. The Egyptians of the Exodus story are, after all, slave owning, idolatrous bastards, so what could be more satisfying than watching them drown under thousands of tons of ocean?
It’s not possible for Scott to make a bad looking movie – time has not dimmed his ability to create eye widening vistas; the perfect partner for stories like this one that demand scale; and its in this traditional finale to the Exodus story that his adaptation is most accomplished. Your eyes are a little more keen, your heart a little more active, during this sequence, and it’s a good job too because for the previous two hours there’s been little in the way of intrigue or heart – just a strange daisy chain of in-movie curios.
Low key describes Scott’s approach to material that’s traditional been mannered and overwrought for dramatic effect. Exodus is directed like a contemporary political drama with incongruous dialogue plated to languid performances. Here’s Joel Edgerton’s Ramses on Moses’s proposal that he should release his 400,000 Hebrew slaves: “the economic implications make it problematic”. Rousing stuff. It lacks the economy of “no” but then Christian Bale’s reluctant prophet – an agnostic when we meet him, isn’t minded to say anything as pertinent and ear-catching as “let my people go” either. In this movie everyone’s laid back to the point of being insipid. When Ramses finally gets round to ordering the death of his one time friend and any family he may possess, he looks like he’s getting his order in for pizza.
If the film’s treatment of character is curious (Bale and Edgerton have the bulk of the screen, leaving the likes of Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul and Sigourney Weaver ornamental), curiouser still is the movie’s handling of theology. God, as we’ve established, is a strange beast – appearing here as a creepy and sinister child that baits Bale on his inefficacy while promising acts of terror, but Scott’s film can’t quite decide whether it’s fully behind the Almighty’s righteous ire or not.
Moses is established as a free thinker – a man who believes one should challenge authority and believe in yourself. In order to maintain the integrity of that characterization he maintains a critical distance from God throughout the movie, lamenting his strong arm tactics and refusing to put his name to the slaughter of Egypt’s first born. Yet by the close of proceedings he’s a dye in the wool believer – the man who rubber stamped the Ten Commandments and gives the Lord (still a creepy child) an adulating smile as he leads the Israelites to Canaan, where they can expect to displace whoever’s settled there during their exile and begin a long and bloody war of attrition – a move the film in no way casts as an allegory of today’s trouble in the Middle East.
If we can’t quite gain any purchase on the role of a skeptical character in service to a vengeful God (even Ramses wonders aloud why Moses is on his side as he cradles his dead son), it’s harder still to understand the film’s faith affirming credentials, given the doubt its casts on divine authority. God’s either good or he isn’t, Moses is a savior or he’s not. A film that unpicked the myth would have been refreshing and vital – a new take on an old story – but Exodus: Gods and Kings is torn between verse and modern thought, the result being a handsome epic that never quite coheres.