“I can’t mount a film of this budget […] and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such.”
– Ridley Scott (2014)
A feeling of castration and omission pervades the heart of Ridley Scott’s new film, the big, lumbering, impersonal and frankly idiotic Exodus: Gods and Kings. Not only do many of the story’s plot points feel rushed, but its characters are hackneyed and barely developed.
These factors create significant problems; the story is devoid of narrative complexity, emotional resonance, and there is a lack of danger or stakes. That being said, perhaps the most notable feature of Exodus (or at least the feature most tiresomely written about) is its blatant white-washing of history. Now, the Anglo filter Scott applies to a Middle Eastern and North African story is troublesome to say the least. Yet, it is hardly the film’s most interesting failing (of the several hundred it has). Exodus is shockingly bad because of how the problems outlined above expose the particularly foul nature of the modern movie biz. Not only did the business mechanics of film prevent Scott from casting ethnically-appropriate actors, but the film’s relentless focus on spectacle, and the need to cut its length down to something more theater-friendly, also marginalizes his American, Australian, and European cast. Thus, Exodus should be remembered as not only incapable of respecting the ethnic origins of its source material, but also failing to justify the presence of its many pasty, white bread stars.
A scene that personifies this idea comes approximately halfway through the film, when Christian Bale’s heavily-bearded, steely-eyed, and dull-as-dirt Moses converses with God (who has taken the human form of a young boy). Although referred to on IMDB as “Malak,” this is clearly intended to be the Biblical Yahweh, although the scriptures never referred to him being such as petulant, snot-nosed brat.
This scene stands out for a number of reasons. First, it features Bale acting and looking even more crazy than he did in American Psycho. Second, it reinforces the perspective that most have of the Old Testament God, mainly that he was a violent, vindictive and totally reprehensible sociopath. Finally, this scene also features the God Boy Malak offering Moses an audacious sneer, before commenting that the man’s efforts to destabilize Egypt have been futile. Malak informs Moses that he will be the one now leading the war against Ramses II (Joel Edgerton), and that the impotent shepard/general can get out of the way and “watch.”
This scene heralds an important shift in Scott’s film. Prior to this moment there had been sporadic signs of character work, and (even more sporadically) glimmers of discernible relationships between these characters. There is certainly a hint of tension encircling the dynamic between Moses and Ramses – who Fading Gigolo star John Turturro describes as being “closer than brothers” before he fades out of the movie. But for the most part this relationship comes across as underdeveloped and frankly pedestrian. Obviously, Ramses is carrying a bit of a chip on his shoulder regarding Bale’s Moses, who is such a “man’s man” that it almost laughably inane. This insecurity makes total sense when one observes Ramses’ behavior in the film’s opening battle scene, where he appears so incompetent that it is a wonder that he doesn’t impale himself on his own spear.
And yet, for the most part this relationship – and the conflict that eventually develops between these two men – goes nowhere, at least nowhere where we, the audience, want to follow. This is due to one reason and one reason only: We don’t care about these characters. This is also for a good reason, and that is that we just don’t know anything about them. The film doesn’t draw a particularly striking contrast between the two men’s worldviews. In fact, it draws almost no contrast. The characters’ costumes are probably their most distinctive attributes. Bale’s Moses is a man cloaked in muted tones, and is for the most part rather frumpy. Ramses on the other hand is a dandy, ensconced in a dizzying array of gold plating, and is for the most part totally fab.
Despite the early sections of the film failing to fully develop Ramses and Moses, leaving them about as richly drawn as a pair of juvenile stick figures, both men are at least active initially. However, once The Almighty Father muscles his way back into the film, unleashing a deluge of plagues upon Egypt’s hapless citizenry, Scott seems intent on plunking both men on the biblical bench. Bale’s Moses for example is reduced to being a blithering old coot, and spends the rest of the film seeming to cycle through his past accents. Ramses is neutered even further, and is relegated to doing little except hiding underneath a personal mosquito net (during the plague of flies), or walking out during a storm containing giant hail stupidly unconcerned for his stupid noggin.
The lack of concern Scott displays for his film’s characters is even more egregious when one examines the secondary players, specifically the film’s women. Sigourney Weaver for example – who bizarrely appears as Ramses’ painted mother Tuya – is hardly in the film. While this is disconcerting simply due to how badly Weaver is wasted by Scott, it also speaks to how poorly Exodus was conceived, and the powerful limitations that are often inherent to cinema. Even after eschewing casting a more appropriate actress due to the fiscal side of the film business, Scott’s film utterly fails to take advantage of a name like Weaver due also to the fiscal side of the film business.
What’s clear in watching Exodus is that there are probably more scenes featuring Weaver’s Tuya lying around somewhere in a dark editing bay. There is one scene which appears early on in the film that seems to suggest this, where Tuya aggressively encourages Ramses’ thuggish interrogation of Moses over his Jewish heritage. Her bloodthirsty candor in this moment serves as a powerful counterpoint to her husband Seti (John Turturro) more placid demeanor, and could have helped suggest why Ramses eventually becomes antiquity’s biggest A-hole later on in the film.
However, such a sunny outcome was not to be, and with the alleged four hour cut of Exodus now being scrapped we will never know for certain if an expanded version of Weaver’s role was ever shot. All we can know is that casting an American actress for the Egyptian queen has little to no redeeming value, not even if one looks at it purely on artistic grounds. Weaver having an opportunity to craft a three-dimensional character would have hardly obfuscated the alarming nature of her miscasting; but it could have been at least somewhat mollifying, even if it just suggested that such a dubious casting decision hadn’t been all for nothing.
Weaver’s fate is emblematic of what is going on with other supporting characters in Exodus, such as Sir Ben Kingsley. Often utilized as the go-to-guy for Hollywood films focusing on a non-American or non-European character (such as his Iranian role in House of Sand and Fog), Kingsley appears here briefly as Nun, a man who knows so much about Moses that it is almost like he read the film’s script (or perhaps the Bible). This is another example where the casting of a Hollywood star spits in the face of the material’s origins, but also comes across as completely pointless due to the obviously abridged nature of the character. During the entire (considerable) running time of Exodus, Kingsley only appears in about three scenes, and even these are rather unremarkable, consisting of little more than a series of hushed and boring conversations with Bale’s Moses. His character is given no personality of his own, and seems to exist purely to spout off expository dialogue.
As one can see from examining these primary players, grappling with complex characters was clearly something Scott was incapable of, or perhaps just not interested in doing. This essay is by no means meant to exonerate the man for not pushing harder for more ethnically-appropriate actors being cast in significant roles. That being said, his casting decisions really don’t seem to matter all that much, as the film doesn’t actually possess any human characters at all.
This can be attributed to the fact that the movie industry is ultimately a business, and one where only certain types of products (mainly films two hours long or less) are seen as economically viable. Scott clearly had to make serious cuts to get his vision into cinemas. And yet, even with the reduced length he could have shortened up the battle scenes, or toned down the endless barrage of plagues. Perhaps Moses didn’t need to be completely sidelined so the cherub Immanuel could complete his fiendish vision? Perhaps we could have seen a little bit more of Weaver’s Tuya, and maybe even gained some insight into her Old Testament-style appetites? These changes would have been appreciated because, while Scott’s statement about “Mohammad so-and-so” reeks of geriatric, out-of-touch cluelessness, he isn’t entirely wrong. Filmmaking is a business, and certain actors do help buffer a film’s economic chances (to what extent is of course debatable). Of course, if you’re going to go down that route you better make it worth it. Scott – either due to studio pressure, or due to his own deranged love of visual spectacle – fails in this endeavor. His stars – in all their bleached and blue-eyed glory – don’t shine in Exodus. That is because the very system that shoehorned them into the film is also responsible for their damnation.