All involved in EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS wanted to avoid the traditional motifs to be found in the biblical story of Moses leading his people out of the house of bondage. It’s an excellent way, in theory, to find new and perhaps contemporary meaning. Alas, this version, while excellently directed by Ridley Scott, suffers from a dicey narrative and a murky theology. It’s the sort of thing that made me not just miss the omission of the staff that turns into a snake and back again, but be actively irked by it.
To recap. Moses (Christian Bale) is a prince of Egypt, nephew to Pharaoh (John Turturro), and a cousin who is like a brother to Ramses (Joel Edgerton), the heir apparent. It’s a relationship that is close, but not without its problems. Things like Pharaoh’s preference for Moses as a leader, and the fact that Ramses knows that his father is right. Still, all is going reasonably well until Moses goes forth to inspect the unrest among the resident Israeli slave population currently building the massive structures of which the Egyptians were so fond. His innate sense of right and wrong causes him to meet with the elders, rather than deploy executioners, and it’s then that his true heritage is revealed to him by Ben Kingsley as the elder spokesperson. His revelation is that Moses’ putative mother never had a child of her own, but rather found him floating in a basket on the Nile, whither he had been sent to save his life after Pharaoh ordered all Hebrew children killed. It’s blow, not just to Moses, but thanks to a corrupt viceroy (Ben Mendelsohn), it’s also a blow to Ramses, now Pharaoh himself, forced as he is to banish Moses for being Hebrew. Moses wanders the Sinai, finds a wife (Maria Valverde), meets God next to a burning bush, is reunited with his brother, Aaron (Andrew Tarbet), recruits Joshua (Aaron Paul), and frees the Hebrew slaves with the help of a few supernatural plagues.
Visually, it has the look and feel of a classic biblical epic, blissfully free of the stilted and flowery language that was so often felt to be appropriate to the genre. Cecil B. DeMille would have felt right at home with the cast of (virtual) thousands, though he might have pushed for more eroticism and a schmaltzier family reunion when Moses is realizes that the nursemaid who helped raise him was actually his sister. It’s not a great loss, especially when it’s Bale in the role and he is focusing on the inner conflict of a man who suddenly discovers that everything he knew is a lie. Bale has a way of conveying inner conflict without chewing the scenery or of underplaying it. Edgerton is more interesting, though, as hubris on two legs, belligerently bombastic without being blustery, but with an oddly tender soul beneath the ruthlessness, especially when it comes to his infant son. He also, and this is always dangerous, has one of the most reasonable philosophical lines in the film. It’s from the mouth of this villain of the piece that the writers warn about the dangers of fanaticism. It’s entirely beside the point, and does nothing to detract from a fine performance, but I did find his resemblance to Rod Steiger disconcerting.
There are some excellent touches as the story lurches along. God is not what we would expect, and Moses’ first meeting finds the exile buried in mud with only his face showing. Their dialogues, and there are several of them, fail to clarify anything, such as why God is in such a hurry after 400 years of Hebrew slavery, and why he leaves Moses in a lurch at a particularly bad moment. That he is overheard occasionally by someone who sees only Moses seeming to talk to himself, is another nice touch, though it does call into question where the film lands when it comes to following people who seem to be hallucinating. At least before the Red Sea parts.
And of course it does.
Leave out that trick staff, leave out the manna from heaven, relegate Aaron and Joshua to minor and interchangeable characters, give us only the briefest glimpse of the Golden Calf, but woe betide a filmmaker who deprives us of that newly dry seabed, and a cacophony of clashing waves. It’s spectacular. After being hammered with the standard, tiring trope of chariots leaping off the 3D screen at us, the bait-and-switch of how the Hebrews make it to safety, and how that’s orchestrated by the divine, is a marvel of CGI. It was so good, that I was sorry that it was over so quickly. And not just because there was a lurch about a survivor that was inserted without a setup of any kind. It’s a moment as discontinuous as one of those tags at the end of a superhero film. As for the plagues, something else no one would dare leave out, the plague of flies has never been more visceral, or the frogs more disgusting, the final one, the one where God gets really tough with Ramses, is anti-climactic, though Edgerton’s howl of despair is heart-wrenching.
EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS barely hangs together due to a savage exercise in bad editing that exacerbates the lulls while cutting the heart out of the emotional bedrock. I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect that somewhere there is an extended cut of that annotates the threadbare happenings in this version, and I would be happy to have the chance to see it.