Nicolas Winding Refn, director and writer of cult smash Drive, defended the critical backlash to his last movie (Only God Forgives) by saying he doesn’t care if you loved or hated his movie, since either reaction means the same thing: his film penetrated your mind. This also recalls a quote I’ve used before that reads it’s worse than not any good, it’s just okay. These two phrases sprang to mind when watching Sir Ridley Scott’s latest, the dreadfully titled Exodus: Gods and Kings, which, in contrast to Darren Aronofsky’s subversive and excellent Noah (I stand by my very positive review this March), has nothing provocative about it. A revisionist take wasn’t necessary to spice up the age-old story that the majority of people know the CliffsNotes version of — big beard, often a staff, HUGE waves, “Let my people go~!” — but something had to be done to stop it from going stale in the blistering sun of familiarity which can dry out even the best of stories. It’s a shame then that Exodus: Gods and Kings pleases on few levels whatsoever, neither embracing the (mostly reverent) Charlton Heston divinely epic and epically divine The Ten Commandments or the subversive reimagining some feared.
Exodus is devoid of brains or brawn, failing artistically in equal stride as it fails as a blockbuster. You’ll not leave the theater furious, thrilled, or much of anything at all. It’s a numbing, exhausting viewing experience that left me in a state of sanctified confusion. As a film critic and general lover of movies, it goes without saying I see many films a year and spend even more time thinking about them, namely in how they’re made, with a liking to infer intent on the part of the filmmakers and how the execution so often fails the intent. In the case of Exodus, my powers of observation defeat me. It’s a film so bereft of vision it’s in need of a holy healer to give it sight, a sad realization when this film is coming from the same filmmaker behind Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator. People have a way of whitewashing Ridley Scott’s filmography, which has far fewer winners than anyone remembers.
Speaking of whitewashing, the mostly white cast is a jabbing distraction, not because of the politics of casting white actors in non-white roles (I leave that to Salon.com), but because it looks as though Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro (really), and Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul stumbled onto an Off-Broadway period play meant to look 10 steps removed from realism. None are good in their parts, but Edgerton finds an enjoyable balance between playing the period and playing it loud.
Still, it’s a pathetic accomplishment Ridley Scott manages to make an acclaimed cast only seem silly. Playing Moses with a whisper shout recalls the worst of Christian Bale’s other performances. Only last year he received an Oscar nomination for playing a con artist in American Hustle, and his ruffled attempt to go period feels like a con itself. Half the blame lies on Ridley Scott, who has Moses sporting a Wall Street style hairdo, and it’s hard to tell which aspects of the production are miserable attempts to go modern or are failings of authenticity. The digital cinematography is worse than bland. It makes sets look like sets and costumes look like costumes, and with the unfortunate lead performance by Bale and overall flawed production design, there’s a proverbial Red Sea between you and believing in Scott’s ancient Egypt.
While the broad strokes of the Exodus story are there, they are compressed, expanded, or ignored in a way that acts as a stranglehold on narrative momentum. Ridley Scott’s driving a car on manual without realizing. Exodus is a film forever stuck in first gear. The famous plot points are cycled through, starting with brothers Moses and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) leading a David Lean-style battle charge at the behest of the aging Egyptian Pharaoh (John Turturro). From there, Moses becomes aware of his true lineage, descendant from the Hebrew slaves, from a Hebrew Elder with ballooning fake facial hair (a criminally underused Ben Kingsley). After starting a family in his exile, Moses returns to Egypt at God’s command to “Let my people go.” Nevertheless, key dramatic scenes, like the moment Ramses exiles Moses, are missing. Another drastic creative misstep has Moses withholding from his wife why he’s leaving. Throughout the film Moses remains every bit as remote and undecipherable, making him a persistently unlikable lead.
Once Moses returns to Egypt, Exodus bizarrely becomes an insurgency picture, with Hebrew rebels taking down supply lines. It’s a war of attrition against the people of Egypt. God “decides” that’s taking too long, so his wrath takes hold in the form of a subtle reimagining of the seven plagues. Those scenes are the highlight, but hampered by bad CGI, and, frankly, by that point the lack of reason to care hangs heavy. In Exodus, even the visuals aren’t divinely inspired. The only ballsy choice is a horrible one: God is personified as an emotionally unstable child. That’s problem enough, but it’s even a worse problem that Ramses, as an antagonist, perseveres as the most sympathetic figure. He’s a greedy tyrant, and yet, he deals with choices I sympathize with. Do you try and save your kingdom or do you try and save your brother and best friend? How do your protect your family? Your kingdom? Your legacy? When the final plague, the angel of death, kills his firstborn son, it’s a tragic moment. Moses’ response is cold and mean-spirited: No Hebrew child has died.
Moses’ bitter reaction should be a tonal clash in a film of wonder and epic conflict, but Exodus is harsh and brutal. In yet another of the film’s many oddball missteps, Moses even doles out Bourne-style sword action. Inoffensive, boring, and narratively incoherent, Exodus was a misguided project from top to bottom, and by the end I was exhausted. After two-and-a-half hours of head-scratching questions at this stupid, failure of a film, my brain threw in the towel. Exodus: Gods and Kings is the final straw. I no longer believe in Sir Ridley Scott.
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