How does an irreligious culture make a “religious” movie? By hiring Ridley Scott to retell (retail?) the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments, dramatize the Israelites’ escape from bondage and the founding of monotheism, and brand it all with his distinctly impersonal personal touch. Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings resists the piety remembered from Cecil B.DeMille’s 1956 The Ten Commandments, which combined camp and sincerity equally, as summarized in DeMille’s own spoken intro: “For those who believe: no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe: no explanation is possible.”
Scott’s ornate style is at the service of historicism, treating Moses’ conversion from Egyptian privilege to acceptance of his Jewish birth as the story of a man’s broken and rebuilt identity. The harsh psychological aspects of this tale, made fancy by lavishly scaled details, echo Scott’s Kingdom of God (2005), a post-9/11 revisionist reading of the Crusades. Just as that film exploited Western political ideology and legend, this film treats events — miracles — that belong to a culture’s legacy and were consistent with Moses’ sense of self and his people, in a strictly naturalistic, non-spiritual way.
In tune with Scott’s chic, putative realism, Christian Bale steps into Charlton Heston’s sandals, playing Moses with Method skepticism — he’s the angriest warrior and prince of Egypt imaginable, then the most anguished and doubt-filled convert ever. (Joel Edgerton’s Pharoah Ramses matches Bale with finely honed sexual anxiety; both actors avoid the cartoonishness of Scott’s Gladiator.) This agnostic approach presents acts of God as though explaining natural selection. (The Red Sea doesn’t part for the Jewish legions’ migration, it evaporates.) The contradictions of faith and skepticism that DeMille opposed with pure showmanship are resolved here to appease a contemporary secular consensus.
“Is it bad to grow up believing in yourself?” Moses asks when objecting to his son’s religious teaching. A certain egocentric faithlessness is also evident in the script (credited to four people including Schindler’s List screenwriter Steven Zaillian) when Moses, told of his heritage, scoffs, “That’s not even a good story, and you people are supposed to be storytellers.” Elder Nun (Ben Kingsley) explains “Israelite” to Moses as meaning “He who wrestles with God,” but this conflicted film — with a few knotted-up metaphors for contemporary Middle East conflict –– shows Hollywood wresting with religion and itself.
Exodus: Gods and Kings takes its narrative from the devolution of religious observance in the marketplace since DeMille’s day, that period when religious epics were a popular genre (from Ben-Hur, Barrabas, The Story of Ruth, and Solomon and Sheba to Spartacus, King of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and all their sword-and-sandal offshoots). Unlike Frank Borzage’s Saint Peter story The Big Fisherman (1959) — the finest, most deeply felt of Hollywood’s Biblical movies – Exodus: Gods and Kings makes no appeal to a presumed popular belief. The filmmakers give in to the schism that erupted with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, using the Moses story too liberally — simply as pretext for blockbuster violence and sensation: The burning bush and Red Sea miracles each occurs after Moses gets conked on the head. Some vistas have that too-vast Peter Jackson–storyboard look that helped diminish theological response to The Lord of the Rings movies. Instead of eroticizing historical myth as in 300: Rise of an Empire, the film shows the same idiotic reliance on fantasy that also fouled up Darren Aronofsky‘s wrestling with ethnicity in Noah, 2014’s other agnostic Biblical movie bookend.
Scott’s impersonal method includes the use of a “God” surrogate — a tantrummy British child — whom only Moses and we can see. This device, which caters to disbelief while unfortunately resembling the little-girl devil figure in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, confirms that Scott is still an ultra-hack. While Exodus: Gods and Kings may lack the commitment Mel Gibson brought to The Passion of the Christ, owing to Scott’s unfathomable God-given talent, this film might look even better.
It’s almost sinful that Scott, despite his visual command, is so intellectually maladroit. His faithless rendition of the Moses tale is at odds with the exquisite use of light and nature as photographed by Dariusz Wolski. Gladiator was fake-looking like a video game, but Scott’s imagery here is so fantastic — and so tasteful — it almost amounts to a vision. (During the plague sequence he depicts a blackout in an era without electricity!) Moses’ first witnessing, his face buried in mud, is tactile, and the river of blood and frog and crocodile plagues show amazing imagination. Ramses’ chariot chase toward the Red Sea with pennants flying outdoes Ran; Scott creates the splendor and thrill that Kurosawa meant to achieve. The shot of Moses engraving the commandments beneath an amber-colored cave vault is worthy of a great artist. Yet each spectacle is abrupt; meaning doesn’t soak in, obviously because Ridley Scott doesn’t believe in any of it. That’s why he‘s an ultra-hack.
Paul Thomas Anderson isn’t known for his sense of humor, which almost makes his Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice a pleasant surprise. Anderson unpacks Pynchon’s encyclopedic, graphomaniac trash-compacting relationship to history, philosophy, and pop trivia in order to go back to the hallowed period of 1970s Hollywood. His tour guide and hero is Larry “Doc ” Sportello (Joaquin Pheonix), a doper detective with mutton-chop Wolverine sideburns and a wide brim straw hat, like Zuma-era Neil Young, with a trace of Hunter S. Thompson and dirty feet.
This “journey through the past” is a deliberate overload where ’70s weirdnesses (all of its pre-AIDS fetishes) combine with common human eccentricities. It comes from Pynchon’s artifice as much as Anderson’s pretense — more Robert Altman imitation — making an appeal to contemporary cynics through cultural anachronism. We’re meant to see ourselves in these neo-noir comic-book characters (including Josh Brolin’s “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, a cop who does sexual pantomimes), not to contemplate their follies but to patronize our own — increasingly a deplorable habit by today‘s American eccentric directors.
The past is used as distraction from confronting the present — thus, this timely facetious caprice. PTA mentions Cointelpro and makes Black Panther jokes and cop jokes. He dips into L.A. decadence, but his sex-politics-music mix (always nice to hear Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now”) lacks David O. Russell’s shrewd social perception. Plus, PTA’s race-class observations can’t match Fred Williamson and Jack Arnold’s Black Eye – one of the best ’70s blaxploitation movies — which casually implied more race-class awareness without pretending to be a big zeitgeist statement. This is what we got when Hollywood failed to embrace Alex Cox (Repo Man, Highway Patrolman, The Winner), who had a satiric, truly critical attitude toward social institutions and customs.
Anderson’s satirical antics are miscalculated. L.A. touchstones like Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Jacques Demy’s The Model Shop were interested in discovering their present; this all-star showcase of a superior movie era lacks that freewheeling sense of encountering American multiplicity, the E Pluribus Unum that made ’70s films so entrancing. Inherent Vice is a facetious salute to E Pluribus Hipster.
— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.