If there’s one thing Ridley Scott‘s Exodus: Gods and Kings gets right it’s the amount of hairstyles Christian Bale can rock in one movie. I stopped counting after about the eight iteration of mangy hair/trim beard to mangy beard/trim hair transformation. Eventually some gray enters the mix. It’s very life affirming.
That ever changing facial hairiness belongs to Moses, the badass war commander from the Bible. See you may mistakenly remember Moses as a peace loving, water-parting, commandment-carrying lover of all things Hebrew but Scott’s film reminds us of his true roots: slicin’ and dicin’ Barbarian hordes. Because what is a Ridley Scott movie without scene of “civilized” warriors running down rudimentary inferiors? In 3D, it’s all the more punishing.
Moses starts the film as a Prince of Egypt, a devout servant to the Egyptian throne and underling to the one and only Jesus (John Turturro with drawn on eyebrows). Moses is the cousin to hairless heir Rhamses, an antagonist with a serious case of the Charlie Browns and an even worse case of miscasting. Moses advices Rhamses in matters of … uh… untold things? and tries to quell his overly developed Commodus qualities by being sword twinsies. Plucked right from Gladiator, Jesus (ok fine, Turturro’s real name is Seti) tells Moses he wishes that it could be him who takes the reins after his demise, but alas! that vexing bloodline thing! After a fraudulent Ben Mendelsohn ousts Moses as a Hebrew with a birthright (that being a birthright to drown in a river like all those other pesky Hebrew babies), Rhamses throws a hissy and gives Moses the boot from his kingdom of pyramids and cat statues. Plagues follow.
For what feels like forty days and forty nights, the film is as much of a slog as its title implies. The diaspora of narrative is as thinned out as Moses’ herd of hungry hungry Hebrews. No stone is left unturned as the screenplay by committee (four credited screenwriters) make room for just about every uninteresting element in Moses’ 120 year long life. See Moses struggle with leaving his (Muslim?) family, Moses trekking there and back again and then back again and then back again, Moses’ teach his flock to rise and rise again until lambs turn to lions and, finally, Moses waiting horrified in the wings as God unleashes a lashing of super gnarly pandemics.
Squatting somewhere on a fence between super-naturalism and realism, Exodus never can make up its mind about how pragmatic it wants its divinity to be. The whole celestial curse comes with a footnote of “How the Plagues Could Have Actually Happened” (narrated by the film’s best Ewen Bremmer lookalike) that mostly involves alligator fights and acne. As things heat into a realm of “don’t mention it” magical realism, a deathly hallow of blackness consumes the lives of first borns a big fat dementor. When Scott gets around to revealing God as a neatly shaved, petulant child with an overdeveloped sense of vengeance, things get laughable.
Bale, as always, is up to the task, even if the film itself is not. He gives his all to Moses. Both the battle-worn soldier and the identity-confused harbinger of commandments are juicy with Bale’s overzealous commitment to character. The rest of the performances are disposable at best. Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul, who FEELS NO PAIN!!!!) peeks around corners and catch Moses in the act of talking to God (aka talking to a bush like a madman) not once, not twice but a heaving four times.
Ben Kingsley shows up because it’s a movie about Egypt so Ben Kingsley has to show up. Signourney Weaver is stuffed inside some horrendous Egyptian dress to spout out some vitriol about something or other and then never reappear. But it’s Edgerton who suffers most under the weight of Rhamses’ stupidly whitewashed part. The character is dumb enough before draping itself in pale yellow anacondas.
To watch Exodus is to endure exodus. At 150 mins, it’s easily one of the most taxing films of the year and surely one of its least inspired blockbusters. Darren Aronofsky struggled to find his footing in Noah and misstepped more than once, but at least there was some kind of palpable driving force behind that film. Here, it’s a challenge to make heads or tails of the intent. It seems like a $140 million dollar tax write off starring Christian Bale’s hair-growing abilities.