When the Egyptian Pharaoh Rhamses (Joel Egerton) discovers that Moses (Christian Bale) is an adopted Hebrew, he casts him into exile. During his time he's visited by visions of God that drive him back to Memphis and into a guerrilla rebellion for his people's freedom. The bloody warfare swings like a pendulum between both sides until Moses' vengeful God initiates a deadly cycle of plagues that force the master's hands. The 600,000 slaves set upon a monumental journey of escape from Egypt with an army at their back.
One of the things that that you must be thinking going into Scott's latest religious epic Exodus: Gods and Kings was why? Why again and why now? Surely with the death of the traditional, classical, gargantuan production, (thanks to computer generated imagery) we're also ringing in the death of the significance of approaching any religious fable. However upon closer appraisal you see that in much the same way that the Western genre is a refracted lens that filmmakers approach (their relative) contemporary America, Scott is using this epic myth to approach religious persecution and race.
Exodus: Gods and Kings has an uncompromising intensity both in the character interactions and in the action. No director working, or perhaps ever, is as good as Scott in conceiving of ancient warfare. Diving into fierce field battle in the opening moments of the film we see showers of arrows, chariots thundering through lines of attempted fortifications and cavalry streaming and swirling through the overrun Hittite encampments are startlingly good. The integration of digital and practical, and characteristically exquisite production design is stellar throughout. Scott etches the same kind character powder kegs inside the walls of Egyptian palaces that we've seen him construct inside the viper pit of the Rome. The character dynamics and the familial tension between Moses and Rhamses is palpable as Seti (John Turturro) leans toward his nephew's advice instead of his heir.
This plague of writers Adam Cooper, Bill Collage and Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian somehow manage to create a surprisingly cohesive voice despite the lures to play revisionist, classical, literal, allegorical and disparaging. The film begins deep into Moses' life, thankfully staying away from the points of origination and arriving straight at a point of conflict with his brasher bother in arms Rhamses. The structure and pacing of the central narrative and the courses of Moses and Rhamses are arresting. The secondary supporting characters though, must settle to scavenge any meaningful dialogue or significant contributions to our conception of the central characters. For the most part, accomplished acting talent like Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Indira Varma and John Turturro are reduced to speaking extras. The only supporting actor that adds a manipulative slime to his character Hegep is Aussie Ben Mendelsohn. He grabs scenes across from fellow The Dark Knight Rises co-star Bale by both horns. Their exchanges in the slave city Pithom are superb.
Scott's (and his team of writers) conception of God is a grubby, petulant child. It's both apt and scathingly critical of the figure that deals out such a foul justice. It feels like Scott wants to approach the plagues of lore with an adherence to their horrific reality; in much the same way that Mel Gibson approached The Passion of the Christ. The last real cinematic version of the Exodus story appeared in sanitised animated form in the Prince of Egypt. Scott takes you to dark places that both affirm that they're interventions from God, while being able to explain and rationalise them as spawning from each other like cataclysmic dominoes. The rivers of the Nile run red with the blood of the frenzied feeding of crocodiles, drowning the fish, catapulting the frogs into the city, attract swarms of flies to the decaying flesh, which spawns the pestilence. It's revolting and grotesque and dealt with such inhumanity that you can't help but be affronted by the well of pain and blood that underpin the Jewish faith. This is contrasted with a continuous parade of horrific acts from the Egyptian captors against those they subjugate. You watch the slaves being worked to death and bonfires that continually incinerate them. You see their malnourishment and increased hours as Rhamses inherits the throne and demands more architecture in his honour. It's an endless cycle of oppression and violence; and yet it's an extremely disturbing and conflicting experience enduring their comeuppance.
There are a lot of parallels that can be drawn from Scott's Oscar winning Gladiator. The preferred heir (Moses/Maximus (Russel Crowe) in the eyes of the supreme ruler (Turturro's Seti takes the place of Richard Harris' Marcus Aurelius) defers leadership to the biological heir (Rhamses/Commodus - Joaquin Phoenix). While Maximus must escape for his life, fight for freedom and is reluctantly compelled into a position of being the saviour, Moses must abandon his logical mind for superstition and initially what seems to be delusion. Exodus: Gods and Kings also draws a through line to Scott's other politically and theologically ambivalent ware epics - Black Hawk Down and Kingdom of Heaven.
One of the key initial criticisms of Scott's approach to the material was the casting. Exodus: Gods and Kings has often been chastised as the last great 'white-washed' epic. However, one only has to look to Scott's own Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven to see his eclectic English language casting that's literally all over the map. Saying that it's more authentic if they'd cast Egyptian and Jewish actors to assay the roles is nonsense. The performers are cast for what they can bring to the characters despite their ethnicity. At the centre are two tremendous co-leads in Bale and Edgerton.
Christian Bale is a rare breed of performer that seems to be drawn to the role the more mentally and physically challenging it becomes. He wrestles beautifully with 'signs' and 'prediction' invading his rationality. The more he's faced with the overwhelming possibility that he's communing with God, the more unhinged and nihilistic he becomes. Forget a saintly piety, he's haunted and the mental weight takes a physical toll. It's a manic performance at times, but the burden warrants it.
Joel Edgerton surprises in his ability to give dimension and context to Rhamses struggle with the political scandal of having a Hebrew slave as his primary advisor. He regrettably sweeps it under the rug and, because of his father Seti's belief that he was ill-equipped to lead, there's an almost oedipal frenzy to succeed his father in every way possible. It's a complex character that acknowledges the nature of his culture and is even able to make you feel empathy.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is the clash between flawed superstitious and tribal men; on a battlefield set in the closing palm of a god. It's dark, spiritually incongruous and damn good.
Score: 4 Stars
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
RELEASED IN AUSTRALIA DECEMBER 4th, 2014
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Adam Cooper & Bill Collage and Jeffrey Caine and
Starring: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Indira Varma, John Turturro, María Valverde, Golshifteh Farahani, Ben Mendelsohn, Hiam Abbass