Quite a bit of controversy has stirred up surrounding the release of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. On the one hand, many are upset about the casting of Anglo-Saxon actors in an ethnically inaccurate fashion. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Christians raise the usual complaints about supposed Biblical inaccuracies. Unfortunately, all of these vehement debates distract from an accurate judgment of the film on its own terms, and while it may possess a few structural flaws, Exodus proves a solid and compelling retelling of a well-worn tale.
Scott, armed with an excellent cast of actors (setting the controversy aside for the moment), attempts to anchor his retelling of the Exodus account firmly in the development of characters, with admittedly mixed results. Christian Bale proves a worthy Moses, a prince of Egypt raised a royal warrior, whose true identity lies with the Hebrew people his kingdom has enslaved. Moses struggles with commands from God, relayed to him through a young child messenger, questioning the necessity and justice of God’s wrath visited upon the Egyptians, while also exhibiting violent tendencies himself, a logical result of his own upbringing. Moses’ relationship with his Midianite family in exile, particularly with Zipporah, however, feels shortchanged, rushed through in a spotty first act that sets up the action to come, but does not give enough screen-time to key emotional bonds.
Moses’ relationships with his Egyptian family also feel stilted in this prologue, revealing significant relational dynamics without allowing them to truly breathe. My sneaking suspicion is that a good amount of material was cut to fit a shorter run-time, and this would not be the first time Scott has been shortchanged with a theatrical cut (I optimistically hope a director’s cut will eventually remedy some of these problems). I find it hard to believe that Sigourney Weaver was cast as Queen of Egypt only to have her pitting of Moses and Ramses against each other simply mentioned in passing. This is only one example of several plot ideas that are briefly addressed but fail to develop to their full potential.
Mentioning Ramses, however, brings us to the true strength of Exodus: Joel Edgerton. His performance as Ramses is a revelation, and once the film brings us to the showdown between the royal brothers it begins to feel less like the story of Moses and more like the tragic descent and humbling of a proud Pharaoh. Edgerton packs his performance full of broiling, seething emotion: confusion, anger, and surprising tenderness all appear. Scott’s crafting of Ramses provides the film’s most complex and compelling material. Edgerton lays on the intensity as a vain and insecure tyrant while also allowing the audience to glimpse a deep and human desire for familial love, born from his perceived rejection by his father. It is a nuanced portrayal of an iconic figure, one that culminates in increasingly heart-wrenching scenes, the most potent of which coming when Ramses confronts Moses holding the body of his dead son, truthfully and honestly asking “what kind of fanatics worship such a God?”
Scott’s keen visual eye and penchant for epic action shines throughout Exodus. The Egyptian army is carefully and powerfully shot, represented as an unstoppable force of nature through wide sweeping vistas, and the plagues are terrifyingly horrific and realistic. No other film adaptation has so potently provoked the instinctive revulsion inherent in understanding God’s justice in the Exodus account. The parting of the Red Sea is magnificently staged, reveling in the supernatural spectacle of the entire affair while keeping the narrative focus clearly on the conflict between Ramses and Moses. Scott’s decision to portray God’s messenger as a young child also adds an eerie dynamic, tapping into the Scriptural thematic motif of the weak shaming the strong, while simultaneously creating a certain queasiness with the idea a little boy calling out for destructive retributive justice.
Exodus might flounder a bit at its conclusion, when characters initially underdeveloped prove vital to important character arcs, but these are relatively minor complaints when taken in consideration of the whole. Scott has crafted a biblical epic that remains faithful to the heart of this old story while probing new and often uncomfortable questions of faith. The answers to these questions will vary widely from viewer to viewer, but Scott is to be commended for humanizing Ramses in a manner not seen before. Ironically, it removes him from his godlike pedestal much like God himself does through the plagues. While Exodus: Gods and Kings may not reach the transcendent heights of The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt, it is a worthy addition to Hollywood’s Exodus canon, providing provocative, thrilling storytelling of a spiritual nature on a grand scale, and in the end, what more can one ask of a biblical epic?