Director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, though critically admired, did not reach a huge audience upon its release last November, but since its five Oscar nominations it is making the rounds again, and deserves to be seen by anyone interested in music, first-rate acting, and the art of film. Chazelle, not yet 30, wrote and directed this movie, based loosely on his own experiences as a student drummer studying under a harsh and rigorous mentor. He originally filmed an 18-minute short with the same title—the name of a Hank Levy jazz composition—which won the Sundance short film jury award in 2013. For that original short, produced by Jason Reitman among others, Chazelle was able to cast J.K. Simmons (who had worked on Reitman’s film Juno) in the pivotal role of the band director. In Chazelle’s full-length expansion of that original film, Simmons reprises his role in a memorable and sometimes shocking performance that has already garnered him a Golden Globe and a Screen Actor’s Guild award for Best Supporting Actor, and has made him the man to beat in the Oscar competition for that category. What kind of a music teacher is he? Let’s just say this is not exactly Mr. Holland’s Opus.
Indeed Simmons, more sadistic drill-instructor than teacher, has viewers jokingly calling the film “Full-Metal Julliard.” Essentially the plot of the film is this: Andrew Neyman, played convincingly by Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) is an aspiring 19-year-old drummer studying at a prestigious New York conservatory (based, presumably, on Julliard). His obsession with jazz and his single-minded ambition to become the next Buddy Rich bring him into the sphere of Terence Fletcher (Simmons), the most talented and feared instructor at the school, who conducts the conservatory’s top jazz ensemble. Once accepted into Fletcher’s band, Andrew witnesses the instructor’s over-the-top cruelty that involves mind-games as well as verbal and occasional physical abuse in a ruthless push for perfection. After his initial revulsion at Fletcher’s methods, Andrew succumbs to the obsession to become one of the greats: we are told, several times—by Fletcher—that Charlie Parker did not become Charlie Parker until drummer Jo Jones once threw a cymbal at his head, inspiring Parker to work fanatically harder and achieve immortality. In the course of the film, Andrew practices with zealous fervor, pushing himself until his hands bleed, after which he plunges them into cold water, bandages them, and pushes himself even harder.
The rest of Andrew’s life is treated almost as a subplot in the film, which in fact it is for Andrew. He has no friends, and manages to alienate most of the people he does know, including his fellow band members. He goes to movies with his father, a high school English teacher who was once an aspiring writer, played by Paul Reiser. He very nearly has a girlfriend—the concessions worker at the movie house, a perky Fordham freshman named Nicole (Melissa Benoist, of TV’s Glee), with an undecided major who has no clear goals of her own but to whom Andrew seems to relate on a human level far better than he relates to anyone else in the film. But it is a relationship that seems to get in the way of his monomaniacal obsession with his art, and which he cuts off while sitting in a booth at a restaurant with no show of emotion. Most of the audience must agree with Nicole’s last word to him as she leaves the restaurant: “What is wrong with you?”
What’s wrong with Andrew is that he’s buying what Fletcher is selling: He wants to be the next Charlie Parker and is willing to let Fletcher keep throwing metaphorical cymbals at his head to push him to that level. By the midway point of the film it seems clear that Andrew has begun to equate pleasing the impossibly demanding Fletcher with achieving his dream. He is led to more and more improbable lengths to remain in Fletcher’s good graces, and—even though he clearly hates the instructor at the same time—cannot be brought to completely abandon his worship of him even after it appears (little bit of a spoiler alert coming up) that Fletcher’s bullying has caused serious harm to past students, as well. The audience is invited to participate—albeit grudgingly—in Andrew’s admiration when late in the film Fletcher feels compelled to justify his methods: The enemy of greatness is “good enough,” he implies, asserting that his bullying methods drive students to achieve the absolute pinnacle of their abilities— “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than, ‘Good job,’ ” he tells Andrew.
There are two particular problems that audiences and critics have had in interpreting the film. The first is this: a large number of its viewers come away feeling that Chazelle’s intent in the film is to validate Fletcher’s methods. If ultimately they drive Andrew to become the next Buddy Rich, aren’t they successful? One critic who disliked the film complained that “We’re supposed to think that Terence’s tough love is more ‘honest’ than the usual pussyfooting tutelage.” In fact, though, Chazelle makes no such claim about what the viewers are “supposed to think.” If Andrew chooses to follow Fletcher, it does not mean the audience is supposed to see that as a good thing. It may well be—we see the results in Andrew’s drive and in his playing. But we also see the results in his relationships, or lack of them, with others. Chazelle makes no comments. The viewers are left to decide for themselves what the moral of the story is.
Secondly, even many of the critics who admire the film have commented that a number of scenes stretch an audience’s credulity. There is no denying the truth of this charge. First, no teacher at any level would be permitted to abuse, insult, and hector students as Fletcher does. Furthermore, the length to which Andrew goes to perform in Fletcher’s band become so over the top that they tax our willing suspension of disbelief, and the final scene in particular seems more nightmare than reality. As one critic put it, “several turns of the plot past the halfway point seem more than contrived.”
This is quite true. But I would contend that this is not a flaw in the movie: The story is set in a moral landscape, not a realistic one. That is because it is, quite literally, a modern morality play. As in every morality play, the action really takes place within the main character’s psyche. In the medieval tradition of the morality play, an everyman figure must choose between salvation an sin, between the forces of good and the forces of evil, usually represented by an angelic figure on the one hand and a demonic one on the other, each of whom attempts to entice or convince the protagonist to his side. In Whiplash, it is no accident that Fletcher dresses in black, that he lurks outside of doors in the shadows, that, like Satan in the wilderness, he promises a wealth of kingdoms if Andrew will bow down and worship him.
On the other side is Reiser as the angelic force, Andrew’s father, trying to humanize his son and to counteract the antisocial influence Fletcher is having on him. A key scene underscoring this occurs at a family dinner Andrew attends with his father, aunt and cousins. Piqued by their lack of interest in his own achievements, he insults his cousins’ own accomplishments (playing football for only an NCAA level three college!), and arguing with his father that it is better to die (like Charlie Parker) a friendless addict at 34 and be remembered for a great achievement, than to die at 90 content and happy, surrounded by friends and family. It becomes obvious at this point that Andrew has internalized Fletcher’s philosophy, and that he has adopted as well his mentor’s disdain for anyone who might be content to live a balanced life rather than strive frantically for perfection and achievement. His father, the failed writer, has found contentment in his life as a teacher, and models for Andrew the importance of human relationships. In a scene toward the end of the film, Andrew has a choice to go off with his father or to take the path of Fletcher, and his choice, like Everyman’s in the morality play, will determine his whole future.
I don’t mean to suggest that the characters in the film are merely abstractions. There is no doubt that Fletcher and Andrew are complex and complicated characters, given real existence by the considerable talent of the two principle actors. We can see that Andrew suffers some remorse at losing Nicole, with whom he tries to reconnect later in the film. And there are layers of motivation behind Simmons’ brilliant tour de force with the character of Fletcher: Does he feel remorse at the death of a former student? Does he truly want to help students or is it all a power trip? Is he a sociopath or a sincere but overzealous teacher? Or is he taking out his own frustrations at not being a great performer himself on those who still have a chance to be? Part of the skill of Simmons’ portrayal is that all of these possibilities remain open, and many are probably true simultaneously, as with any real human being.
Chazelle has created a marvelous film, shooting most of it in close-up in confined spaces, increasing a feeling of claustrophobic tension, with quick cuts that seem to follow the beat of a metronome, or a drum, so that you will find it hard not to feel as if you are yourself under the pressure Andrew endures. You may end up nauseous from nervous tension, as my wife did. This is not a movie to go to for relaxation. But it is one of the more impressive movies of the year. I award it three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare.
Clint Eastwood’s best movies have examined the intricacies of violence and machismo, from the thin line between gunfighter and lawman in the old west in Unforgiven, to the sport of boxing in Million Dollar Baby, to the moral complexities of war in what I consider his greatest film, Letters from Iwo Jima. In his most recent effort, American Sniper, finally in wide release this weekend, Eastwood attempts (ultimately unsuccessfully) to focus on those same kinds of issues in retelling the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the “most lethal sniper in U.S. military history” as he subtitled his best-selling 2012 autobiography. Kyle is known to have killed some 160 targets in four tours of duty in the most recent Iraq war, though there may be up to a hundred more unconfirmed killings that could be added to that total. Kyle’s book was the main source for Jason Hall’s screenplay, though Hall also consulted with Kyle’s wife, Taya, in composing the script.
Bradley Cooper has earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Kyle. In a nuanced and understated performance, Cooper depicts a Texas ranch hand and rodeo competitor who finds meaning in service to his country through the notoriously rigorous SEALS program, but whose psyche, battered by watching his fellow soldiers die, but more deeply disturbed by acting as executioner of so many human lives, including women and children, becomes unraveled and engages in a dangerous inner battle with post-traumatic stress. It is Cooper’s special gift to be able to depict this kind of inner turmoil while maintaining a stoic exterior and a staunch refusal to admit that anything could possibly be wrong.
It may be that Cooper’s performance is so subtle that he succeeds in convincing a good portion of the audience that he is just fine as well. I say this because, since the film was out for a number of weeks before its wide release, there are already a large number of reviews available, and in reading some of these reviews, I scratch my head and wonder whether some of these reviewers were watching the same movie I saw—or indeed, whether they were watching the same film as the other critics. One reviewer says that the film “offers a saintly portrait of Chris Kyle.” Really? In one scene Kyle nearly kills his family’s pet dog because the dog is roughhousing with a child. Not exactly Francis of Assisi. Another reviewer asserts that the film “bleeds red, white and blue in the worst ways.” There is no doubt that Cooper’s character does this. But with his seething emotions surging tumultuously beneath his placid exterior, Cooper’s Kyle is a radically unreliable source. The patriotism is a major element in the chewing gum and rubber bands he is using to hold his crumbling psyche together through most of the movie. Part of the confusion in the critical response is probably due to Eastwood’s lack of overt moralizing in the film. He simply presents the events and Kyle’s actions, and allows them to speak for themselves.
It is Kyle’s psychological deterioration that holds the story together. The film’s plot suffers from a kind of formlessness typical of a biopic, since people’s real lives tend not to fit into a neat story arc, but there is a clear progression toward a promised climax in Kyle’s mental state. The movie opens with Kyle perched on a rooftop, his rifle aimed at a woman handing a young boy a grenade that he can hurl at a convoy of American soldiers approaching through the streets of Fallujah in Iraq. Through a series of flashbacks we are shown how Kyle arrived at this place. We get a scene where the child Chris is lectured by a stern and humorless father about how there are three kinds of people in the world: sheep (the innocent, unsuspecting and essentially clueless masses), wolves (predators who take advantage of the sheep) and sheepdogs (whose duty it is to protect the sheep). The upshot of it is that Chris had better be a sheepdog if he knows what’s good for him.
We also see how Kyle, as a relatively aimless grown man who has just discovered his girlfriend sleeping with someone else, in the midst of an alcoholic binge with his brother Jeff (Keir O’Donnell), sees a televised report of the 1998 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Africa, and decides to enlist, to defend the honor of his homeland. We see him go through the SEALS training, and meet his future wife Taya (Sienna Miller) sitting in a bar. It is the only scene where we see his easy charm and essential kindness coming out in his relationship with Taya. We can understand in this scene why she marries him, and it also gives us a starting point for the state of Kyle’s soul before he is deployed.
Kyle does kill both the woman and the child from that rooftop when we return to his sniper’s position after all the film’s exposition scenes. As the scene makes clear, the grenade would have taken out a good number of American soldiers, and so the kills were necessary given the parameters of Kyle’s assignment. Still, they trouble him, and as an audience we cannot help but feel with him, just as we do later in the film when, having shot an enemy combatant holding a grenade launcher, another very young boy picks up the weapon and tries to aim it at American troops. Kyle begs the child under his breath not to pick up the grenade launcher so he does not have to kill him, and with Kyle we breathe a sigh of relief when the boy drops the weapon and runs off.
From that first kill through the end of his fourth tour, the plot of the film is essentially one episode after another of Kyle’s marksmanship and increasing stoicism in the wake of kill after kill. A number of episodes revolve around a brutal Al-Qaeda operative nicknamed the “butcher,” who tortures prisoners with a drill and whom Kyle witnesses killing a sheik who has helped the Americans, along with the sheik’s young son. The butcher is assisted by his own sniper, an Olympic shooting medalist named Mustafa who hunts for Kyle just as Kyle hunts for him. Scenes in Iraq alternate with scenes at home, where Taya bears two children and keeps waiting for Chris to return, always disappointed when he does come home since he spends all of his time thinking about being back in Iraq, wracked by the fact that his comrades are still dying over there. His excuse is that he needs to be there to do his part, while Taya insists that he has done that and that he has a duty to his family as well.
One question after another is raised as the film progresses. Is Kyle always the sheepdog, or are there times when he becomes the wolf? In his hunt for Mustafa, there is definitely something wolf-like, and this is one difficulty of the elder Kyle’s analogy: in his protection of his sheep, can the dog forget his training and feel the feral call of the wolf’s bloodlust? Or alternatively, does the sniper, dealing out death from a thousand yards away, develop the ability to disengage completely from the act, as if playing a video game, as some of Kyle’s kills seem to suggest in the movie? Are Kyle’s family not really the sheep in his father’s equation, and don’t they need him at least as much as his fellows in Iraq? Where does his ultimate duty reside?
There is some evidence that the real-life Chris Kyle was not particularly disturbed by these questions. In his book, he says of the Iraqi enemy that he “hated the damn savages.” As portrayed in the film, Cooper’s Kyle, asked by a VA psychologist whether he felt any of his 160 reported kills might have been questionable, responds “I’m willing to meet my creator and answer for every shot that I took.” Some viewers of the film take this answer at face value, as if it is Eastwood’s, or as if it is unambiguously the character’s true feelings. But whether reading between the lines of Kyle’s book, or through interviews with Taya, or perhaps through simple human empathy, either Eastwood or Hall or Cooper himself has created a more complex Kyle. Anyone who sees Eastwood’s film as simple flag-waving is ignoring many of the film’s most disturbing elements: scenes where Taya, trying to maintain a connection with Kyle by phone, is interrupted by the sounds of battle and never knows whether Kyle is alive or dead on the other end of the connection; the scene where Chris meets his brother Jeff, shipping home after a stint in the war with the marines, and finds his brother resentful, bitter, and eager to leave his own sordid experience of the war in the dust; and most of all the scenes of the PTSD Kyle at home, an automaton whose feelings have all been buried somewhere deep within or, perhaps most disturbing, the scene in which Kyle pulls a gun on his wife, ordering her to “drop her drawers” in what to some extent is a “playful” romp through which Kyle may finally be able to let off some steam, but which for the audience is incredibly uncomfortable, especially since they have seen the Kyle who seems ready to blow at any moment. There is definitely a subtext in this scene that tells us to remember the fate of the family dog.
And this is where the wheels fall off the bus. Having set up a situation where the returning soldier must face his inner demons and deal with the moral ambiguity of his acts, Eastwood has prepared us for a significant exploration of the struggles of returning veterans, doing for the Iraq war what The Best Years of Our Lives did for the Second World War, or Coming Home for Vietnam, perhaps under the direct influence of the more recent and more complete story of The Hurt Locker. Instead, we are shown five minutes of Kyle working with patients at a VA hospital, and essentially told “And so he turned out fine.” It is far more than a simple wasted opportunity. It is essentially a betrayal of Eastwood’s own vision for the film. What on earth made him abandon his film’s focus to end with some actual flag waving and no real resolution to the problems the film had been raising all along is impossible to say. Perhaps it was a fear that the mass audience the film was aiming for just didn’t want to see the touchy feely kind of therapy that might be necessary in the end. Perhaps there was a decision by producers of the film to dial back anything that could be perceived as questioning America’s ill-advised adventure in Iraq, though Kyle’s PTSD could have happened after any conflict in the past hundred years. For whatever reason, the film proves in the end to be a dud, despite its promising development up to the very last scenes. For those reasons, I don’t think Eastwood’s film has any business being a “best picture” nominee. I will give it three Tennysons, but only on the basis of Cooper’s brilliant performance.
If you are not a mathematician or computer scientist, it is quite possible that you have never heard of Alan Turing. That is unfortunate, since Turing is generally regarded as the father of computer science and of artificial intelligence, and thus more than anyone else in history is responsible for today’s cyberworld. Princeton University, from which Turing obtained his Ph.D., named Turing their second most important graduate ever—the first being President James Madison.
Turing’s other claim to fame is as a cryptanalyst, or breaker of codes. Working for the British MI-6 Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, Turing and his team were responsible for building an electromechanical machine—the world’s first true computer—which was able to crack the “unbreakable” German Enigma machine code. The decoding of German messages enabled the Allied powers to defeat the Nazis in such conflicts as the Battle of the Atlantic. Turing’s work is estimated to have shortened the war by at least two years, and to have saved millions of lives.
It is this dramatic war story that is the focal point of Norwegian director Morten Tildum’s new film, The Imitation Game. In his first full-length screenplay, writer Graham Moore has based his story on Andrew Hodges’ biography Alan Turing: the Enigma. Moore’s script opens in 1952, when police are called to Turing’s home to investigate a burglary. One of the investigating police officers, Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear), becomes convinced that Turing has something to hide, and, curious that he can find so little information about Turing, begins to investigate his life. Finding Turing’s war record has been expunged, the investigation turns up, instead, evidence of turning’s homosexual activity, and he is arrested under Britain’s 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act and charged with “gross indecency.”
It is Turing’s statement to Detective Nock that forms the narrative of the war years, which are the chief focus of the film. Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing captures the genius mathematician’s arrogance as well as his social awkwardness: He nearly blows the job interview with Commander Denniston (Charles Dance of Game of Thrones) because he makes it clear his motive is not patriotism but rather his interest in solving a difficult puzzle—and because he does not understand jokes. He doesn’t want to work with the assembled team because they won’t be able to keep up with him, and he doesn’t want to waste time explaining things to them. At the same time, his fellow cryptanalysts resent him for not being a “team player,” though they ultimately stand by him when Denniston wants to fire him and they recognize that his machine is their only chance to break the Nazis’ code.
Despite his very unattractive qualities, Turing is able to keep the audience’s sympathy for two reasons: first, he goes out of his way to bring a brilliant mathematician, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) onto the team, despite the official stance of the government toward women in such positions, despite the social mores of the time, and despite her parents’ objections—he even proposes to Joan so that she can reassure her parents about her situation. Turing’s advocacy of Clarke, valuing her potential intellectual contribution above any social constraints, demonstrates his essential humanity beneath his machine-like personality. Of course, his championship of Clarke foreshadows his own ultimately more devastating defiance of social mores.
The other means by which the film keeps our sympathies with Turing is through a series of flashbacks to Turing’s days at public school where, bullied and misunderstood by fellow students and tutors, the young Turing (Alex Lawther) is befriended by classmate Christopher (Jack Bannon), who encourages Turing through his difficult times, telling him “Sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine,” advice that he uses later in the film to encourage Joan Clarke. But Turing’s memory of Christopher, the memory that reveals that he does indeed have a heart beneath his machine-like veneer, is embodied in his naming his life’s work, the computer itself, Christopher.
Like most biopics, the movie really does rise or fall with the performance of its lead actor. In this case, Cumberbatch is pitch perfect as the mathematical genius whose emotions were stunted in adolescence. Of course, Cumberbatch has made a career of playing arrogant but socially inept geniuses, from Sherlock Holmes to Star Trek’s Khan to the Hobbit’s dragon Smaug. Here, his Turing is brilliant and aloof, arrogant but stammering and clumsy in his relations to others, perhaps located somewhere on the autism spectrum. His machine-like restraint through most of the film makes his tragic breakdown in the film’s last scene all the more powerful.
Through most of the film, Cumberbatch is ably supported by Knightley, whose Joan Clarke is another mathematical prodigy but one much more able to conform to society’s expectations of her, and thus in one sense serves as a foil to Turing. She helps Turing gain the good will of his colleagues while at the same time solving puzzles more quickly than Turing can solve them himself. She is completely convincing when Turing comes out to her, thinking to break off their engagement, and without missing a beat she indicates she was already aware of his sexuality, and proposes a marriage of minds. Her heartfelt sympathy when she meets him again after his arrest is honest and moving as well. The only problem with Knightley’s performance is that she is not onscreen enough. It would have been nice if her part had been more substantial.
Two difficult questions are raised by the film’s last half hour or so. The first involves the decision of how to use the information the group gains from decoding the Nazi messages: They have the opportunity to stop a German attack on a British convoy before it happens, but in doing so would reveal to the Germans that the code has been broken, thereby giving up the advantage gained by their secret knowledge, and forcing the Nazis to create a new code that might take years to decipher. The decision to use the decoded messages selectively, and to allow certain allied lives to be lost in individual battles for the sake of ultimate victory, is a controversial and complex one, and perhaps deserved more development than the film gives it.
The other questionable aspect of the film’s final minutes is the depiction of Turing’s own end. As the film accurately portrays (spoiler alert!), Turing, convicted of gross indecency, was given a choice between a prison sentence and hormone therapy—what was essentially a kind of “chemical castration.” He is on the hormones when Clarke visits him, and seems a physical and emotional wreck. Closing credits roll over a scene of a triumphant decryption team burning their records on VE-Day, but indicate that Turing comitted suicide at the age of 41, two years after the last scene with Knightley. What the film does not say is that Turing died of cyanide poisoning after eating an apple laced with the poison. Turing’s mother, however, always insisted that the death was accidental—a theory believed by many others. The film sidesteps this controversy, and avoids the grimness of Turing’s death, perhaps because Turing is a more sympathetic martyr to the cause of gay rights if he was driven to take his own life by the injustice of the system, rather than dying accidentally because of his own careless handling of a lethal substance.
Such quibbles do not deter from the overall brilliant execution of this movie. This is only Tildum’s second film—his first, Headhunters (2011), was also critically acclaimed but not widely seen. The Imitation Game should insure him of significant future opportunities. I’m going to give this one four Shakespeares—Cumberbatch and Knightley particularly make this one of the best movies of 2014.
Last year, director Jean-Marc Vallée directed Matthew McConaughey into a Best Actor Oscar for his uncharacteristic role in Dallas Buyers Club. This year, he threatens to repeat that success on the Actress side with his direction of Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in the film adaptation of her 2012 memoir. That work, an Oprah Book Club choice, was a nonfiction best-seller, and screenwriter Nick Hornby (An Education) has created a minimalist script that allows the story to enfold visually and with a variety of uninterpreted flashbacks that give the audience the experience of interpreting these events themselves. It is a retelling appropriate to the medium and one that should not disappoint fans of the book.
This is a beautiful film visually. In a season dominated by the spectacle of CGI effects in films like The Hobbit and Exodus, it is not only beautiful, but also refreshing to drink in the natural glories of desert, mountain and forest along the Pacific Crest Trail. Yves Bélanger, who was Vallée’s cinematographer on Dallas Buyers Club, makes the most of his opportunities to give us the visual experience of walking that trail ourselves.
For the physical and emotional experience of that hike, we need to rely on Witherspoon, who has as much screen time, and a good deal more dialogue, than Robert Redford had in last year’s All Is Lost. That film is the one that comes to mind immediately when considering what this one is like: in both cases, the protagonist takes on a demanding physical and emotional challenge—in Redford’s case a solo sailing venture, in Witherspoon’s, a 1,100 mile solo hike through unforgiving landscape and elements. In both cases the ordeal is a self-imposed challenge with the goal of exorcising the demons of their lives, to restore their sense of self, in a sense to create themselves anew in the wake of personal tragedy and dissolution of self.
There is a good deal of humor in Witherspoon’s initial halting steps on the trail, dogged as they are by inexperience and a kind of uninformed bravado. She has bought boots that are too tight, ends up losing them down the side of a mountain as she removes the bloody toenails that have resulted from her hiking in them. She duct tapes some sandals to her feet and presses on. Of course, she has also over-packed and carries a backpack that seems to weigh more than she does, which she has to go through nearly slapstick contortions to lift. It isn’t until she reaches her first pit stop, and is laughed at by other hikers for the “monster” she has on her back, that one veteran hiker helps her lighten her load by throwing out those things she has no real need of. It is fairly obvious that the huge pack serves as a symbol of the emotional “baggage” she is carrying. There is much that she needs to let go of in order to strip away the veneer of her life to reach the raw self that needs redeeming. Furthermore, we discover as the film moves on, Cheryl Strayed also has crippling burdens of guilt and grief that need somehow to be expiated. That monster pack has got to get lighter.
The things we learn about Cheryl in the film’s early scenes do little to endear her to the audience. She seems a self-indulgent, pampered, immature twenty-something know-it-all who has let her life spiral out of control because of her inability to govern her impulses. Early flashbacks of scenes with her mother (Laura Dern) portray her as a condescending brat who can’t appreciate the gift of the mother she has. She has committed serial adultery against her husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski), who seems uncommonly understanding and forgiving in the brief scenes in which he appears, but whom she also fails to appreciate and who apparently has no idea what Cheryl needs or why she does what she does (he still seems puzzled as he speaks to her on the phone from her former home in Minnesota on the eve of her trek). At least one of the men she has cavorted with introduced her to heroin, and that addiction is another of the profound burdens in her symbolic backpack. Her college friend Aimee (Gaby Hoffman) sees the quagmire Cheryl is sliding into and tries to intercede, but it is not enough.
One of the repeated motifs of Cheryl’s hike treats her relationships with men. She has clearly been in some very unhealthy ones prior to this trek, and the fact that she is a single woman alone on a hike during which she meets men of all sorts on the trail opens her to a variety of strange encounters that prove difficult for her to read. These interactions vary from her skittish meeting with an older rancher early in the film, where she is in some fear about what he has in mind when he invites her to his home for dinner, to a rather more sinister encounter with a pair of hunters who seem to be hunting for more than deer, to an absurdist exchange with a motorist who she thinks is stopping to help her but turns out to be a freelance writer who wants to interview her as a “female hobo.” There is some growing confidence later on the hike when she contemplates what is depicted as a much healthier romantic encounter with a man she meets further along the trail.
But Cheryl’s problems with men are only a symptom of her much deeper emotional scars, which turn out to be related to her mother, as we discover in snippets through more flashbacks. Cheryl’s mother, we find, had her own difficulties in life, including trying to raise her children with a husband who abused them, and then leaving him to raise them alone in poverty. Somewhat to Cheryl’s annoyance her mother retained a positive outlook toward life as something to find joy and happiness in, something she seems to have wanted—and failed—to pass on to Cheryl. Cheryl’s condescension toward and lack of appreciation for her mother (Cheryl was, of course, far more intelligent; just ask her) are two of the burdens weighing on her. Heaviest, though, is the burden (spoiler alert, I suppose) of her mother’s early death—the last and worst of life’s blows to Laura Dern’s poor character. We find it was this untimely passing that sent Cheryl into her tailspin, and the unreconciled issues that she had with her mother put a weight of guilt upon her that it is now impossible to shed because the woman is no more. The film skips Cheryl’s dreams of having killed her mother that appear in the book, but a sense of that guilt is conveyed in a flashback in which her mother’s horse needs to be put down. Cheryl’s realizing that her mother was the love of her life is a turning point in the film, and in her life.
The weight of all this, and the success of the film, is put squarely on Witherspoon’s shoulders. It turns out she is up to the task. She plays the role of the damaged woman seeking by sheer force of will and physical strength, coupled with months spent alone at one with the universe, with subtlety, wit, honesty and good humor. In this she has Mom, in the form of Laura Dern, providing brilliant and sympathetic support in carrying that weight. Witherspoon has already received a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors’ Guild nomination for Best Actress for 2014, and an Oscar nod seems inevitable. I hope that Dern is remembered as well for her memorable supporting role. I have just one gripe: why would a woman hiking for three months across a desert and mountains not bring sunglasses and a hat to wear along the way? I suppose the close-ups of Reese wouldn’t have been as dramatic, but that’s just silly.
Skip all the movies that are getting the big hype this holiday season and opt for this little movie that is actually really good. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this little gem of a film.
The much anticipated Disneyfied version of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s revered musical Into the Woods, opened on Christmas Day nationwide and pulled in millions of fans of the musical or of Broadway in general, as well as millions of families with small children eager for a Disney version of famous fairy tales. It seems unlikely that either group came away completely satisfied.
If you are indeed looking for a kid-friendly movie, you need to know that there are some dark, dark moments in this film, beginning quite early in the confrontation of Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) with the Wolf (Johny Depp). Lapine and Sondheim’s script underscores sexual innuendos in the Wolf’s animal desires, and while the film all but eliminates the scene in which the Wolf devours Red, his song is as complete, and suggestive, as ever. And there are deaths in the film, as well as adultery, and blinding by thorns and by attacking birds, though these things are presented mainly by suggestion—unless you count the killing of giants.
But as long as you are aware of these things there is no reason that families with somewhat older children can’t have a great time for the first hour and a half of this film. The musical’s first act takes familiar fairy tales—Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huddlestone), and Little Red Riding Hood—and intertwines them with a new fairy tale invented for the play, the tale of a Baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) who are childless and, on the instructions of the Witch from next door (Meryl Streep), spend the first act undoing a curse on their house as they go into the woods for three consecutive nights to find four items (a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, a slipper as pure as gold, and hair as yellow as corn), a quest that brings then into contact with characters from the other stories, all of whom are trying to find a way to achieve their deepest wishes—Cinderella’s “I wish…” provides the opening line of music in the film. Sondheim’s songs are memorable and Lapine’s lyrics complex and clever and provide some insightful psychology (like Cinderella’s indecisive song of decision “On the Steps of the Palace”), some sensitive songs of loss of innocence from the young characters taking steps to maturity (Red Riding Hood’s “Nice is different than good…” from her song “I Know Things Now” after her encounter with the Wolf, paralleled by Jack’s “You’re back again only different than before…” from his “Giants in the Sky” number after he returns from his first trip up the beanstalk). A high point of the first act is the hilarious “Agony” duet between Cinderella’s prince (Chris Pine) and Rapunzel’s prince (Billy Magnussen), an over-the-top performance that is guaranteed to win over the audience, while at the same time demonstrating the shallow and pampered lives of the princes.
The cinematography is beautiful. One of the things film can do that a stage production cannot is provide a real-world setting that complements the action, and the woods, including the running stream and waterfall that form the performing space of the “Agony” number, for instance, add to the overall joy of the song. Special effects, like the swirling leaves that mark the Witch’s sudden appearances and disappearances, add to the magic of the presentation, though the giant at the end seems a good deal less frightening, and less real, than she could have.
The cast does a praiseworthy job with the material. Although Depp is somewhat cartoonish in his small role, partly because of the rather silly looking costume and makeup that detract from the otherwise realistic look of the film, Streep, always brilliant in her performances, is spellbinding in the first act, and more impressive in her vocals than in the forgettable Mama Mia. The children—Crawford and Huddlestone—are much less cloying and more professional than one fears with such roles, though it was difficult to figure out why Huddlestone spoke and sang with a Cockney accent, especially when his mother (Tracy Ullman) did not. Perhaps he learned it from his absent father. Kendrick’s Cinderella is clever and a little conniving, not the passive and abused servant you might expect. And Blunt and Corden (the true Broadway veteran in the cast) are likeable and believable in the central roles of the Baker and his wife. Their chemistry is so strong, and Blunt has managed to, well, blunt the rougher edges of the wife’s character, that (spoiler alert) her infidelity in the second act comes as a surprise rather than the inevitability it seems in well-acted stage productions of the play.
Which leads me, unfortunately, to act two. For viewers familiar with the play, the problems of the film’s second act will probably seem the natural outgrowth of some bad directorial decisions in the first act. Marshall and/or Disney have decided to eliminate the character of the Narrator from the production (although there is a voice-over narrator who repeats many of the original Narrator’s lines). This may be justified by the medium—a narrator portrayed as a character could be awkward in a film. It does mean that the death—sacrifice or murder?—of the Narrator in act two, an event that in the play signals the characters’ rejection of the father figure who has governed their choices, and the necessity of their growing up and making their own decisions now. But this can be conveyed in other ways. More serious is the decision to eliminate the Mysterious Man (often played by the same actor as the Narrator in productions of the play). That character in the play, who turns out to be the Baker’s father, moves about in the woods trying to help the Baker and his wife fulfill their quest as he tries to expiate his own guilt at having brought the curse upon his house, and finally dies at the close of the first act having helped to end the curse. He is absolutely vital to the Baker’s motivation in act two and his indecision and insecurity in his role as father. The meeting of the Baker with the memory of his father in act two, and their touching and profound duet “No More,” are absent, replaced by a confusing meeting that takes all of twenty seconds in which the father gives the Baker some lame excuse about having been greedy and suddenly changes the Baker’s mind. People who do not know the play will say, “What just happened?” People who do know the play will say, “That was awful!”
Nor is there a reprise of the “Agony” number in act two. For the film, such a reprise might have seemed redundant. But what it does in the play is underscore for the audience that the triviality of the Princes’ approach to life is simply inappropriate in the real world that follows the “Happily ever after…I wish” ending of the act one finale (which is also cut in the movie). As a result (spoiler alert), the Prince’s infidelity to Cinderella comes out of nowhere. So much is cut from the second act (it is only half an hour long in this film version) that we have no chance to see Cinderella’s disenchantment with her Prince. Nor do we really see the friction between the Baker and his wife that would motivate her actions with the Prince.
Perhaps worst of all is the decision to essentially drop the Rapunzel story after the very beginning of act two. In the play, Rapunzel goes mad from the Witch’s treatment of her, and in running from her mother runs straight to her own death at the hands of the giant. The Witch’s agonized “Children Won’t Listen” loses all its effect when she is simply mourning her daughter’s rejection rather than her death. Thus her own rejection of the world in her “Last Midnight” song is virtually unmotivated. Even Meryl Streep can’t make it make sense.
I don’t know who is most to blame for the disaster that is the last half hour of this movie. It may be Disney’s desire to present a film that’s just a little edgy but still kid-friendly. We’ll have a pedophiliac Wolf who has to die. We’ll have an adulterous wife vaguely suggested, but she must also die. We’ll even have a boy’s mother die, but by accident not malice. But we’ll eliminate two other characters who would have had to die, and have another one live, in spite of the damage it all does to the story. We’ll put in the second act of Sondheim and Lapine’s play—the act that denies the existence of “happily ever after” and that warns us to be careful what we wish for—but we’ll cut more than half of it away so that those unfamiliar with the play will simply be confused, and those familiar with the play will be disturbed. Do the second act right or don’t do it at all; those should have been the options here.
In the end, I’ll give the film two Jaquelyn Susanns and half a Tennyson, mainly on the strength of the music, which the filmmakers couldn’t do anything to ruin, and chalk it up as a great opportunity muffed.
If you see The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies—Peter Jackson’s farewell to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth—you really should go to see it in HFR 3D, the new 3D projection introduced in the three Hobbit films, which seems to be more widely available in this third and last installment. If you haven’t seen it before, the HFR (i.e., “High Frame Rate”) projects the film at twice the speed (the number of frames per second) at which movies have been projected for the past century. It makes for a sharper and more detailed image, so that there is no blur at all when the image moves. Coupled with the 3D image, this gives the viewer the impression that he or she is sitting at a live theater event, in the first row. With binoculars.
In particular, the extra speed is especially effective with computer-generated images, and since much of Jackson’s film is made up of spectacular CGI visual effects, from the monstrous dragon Smaug swooping down on Laketown breathing fire at the beginning, to great armies of orcs, elves and dwarves in a huge pitched battle at the end, the new 3D projection is very shiny to watch. That is, until you get an hour or so into the movie and realize that the visual effects seem specifically designed to distract you from the fact that in this film, nothing actually happens.
The inevitable result of taking Tolkien’s 280-page novel and milking it into three lengthy films for the sole purpose of raking in a fortune from audiences justifiably enthralled by the brilliance of the initial Lord of the Rings trilogy is that eventually—say, half an hour into the third film—you actually run out of plot. The real mystery is why this last film would take two and a half long hours to tell this nonexistent story.
This movie begins where the second installment leaves off, with the dragon Smaug closing in on Laketown, having been roused against the townspeople because they helped Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his band of dwarves make their way to the dragon’s mountain. Amid the panic-stricken lake men only Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) makes a stand against the dragon, shooting apparently ineffectual darts against Smaug’s armor-like hide. Only when his young son brings Bard an enormous black arrow, one that he cannot possibly shoot from his bow but which he is able to fire from a makeshift weapon he rigs up with a huge bowstring, is he able to bring down the beast with a shot to the heart and thus save a remnant of the city from fiery death. Viewers of the first two films were likely anticipating a protracted battle, since so much of those two movies had focused on the threat of the dragon, and certainly the attack on the city and its defense are spectacularly filmed, but the dragon is dead before the opening credits roll.
Which raises this fairly obvious question: instead of ending the previous film, The Desolation of Smaug, with an absurd thirty-minute battle between Smaug and the dwarves inside the hollowed-out mountain (a battle Tolkien never hints at and that does absolutely nothing to advance the plot), why not simply end that film with its natural conclusion—this sequence of the destruction of Smaug and the destitution of the lake people, who set out for the mountain to redeem the promises Thorin made to them in exchange for their help? Presumably Jackson thought that the dragon heading for Laketown was more effective as a cliffhanger. But that raises question number two: The Hobbit has sold well over 100 million copies since its original 1937 release, which puts it easily among the five best-known novels in the world, with only Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Tolkien’s own Lord of the Rings earning significantly more sales. Why, then, would an artificially chosen “cliffhanger” have any real effect on an audience that for the most part already knows the story?
And this raises question number three: why would you think it was a good idea to change a story that people know so well? The plot as it is has stood for more than 75 years and enchanted generations of readers extending to the hundreds of millions. How many plot points were changed in the Harry Potter movies, with their mere scores of millions of fans? Virtually none, of course, because the fans liked them the way they were.
So why, for example, would Jackson and the other writers of The Battle of the Five Armies ignore the significant and climactic plot point of the thrush who flies from the Lonely Mountain to land on Bard’s shoulder and astounds the bowman by whispering in his ear the secret of where the unprotected weak spot is on Smaug’s undercarriage? Why is Bard fighting the dragon alone when in the book he is leading a brave handful of the city guard? Why does the arrow have to be a huge spear rather than the black arrow in the book that Bard shoots—with his normal bow—into the weak spot he has learned of from the thrush? Presumably so that Bard’s son, whom the screenwriters have made up to give Bard some backstory, can have something to do once he’s been inserted into the plot, though I’m pretty sure not one in a hundred audience members remembers his name. I certainly don’t.
But this is only the first scene of the movie. The rest of the film overflows with new ideas not suggested by and sometimes not even compatible with the book. Some of these, like the character of the orc-leader Azog, and Gandalf’s imprisonment by the Dark Lord and his lieutenants the Nazgul, are gleaned from things like the appendices to The Return of the King, and so ultimately have Tolkien as a source, though their connection with The Hobbit is tangential. This is especially true of the imprisonment of Gandalf (Ian McKellen). In a scene that brings Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, and the nonagenarian Christopher Lee as Saruman together to fight a shadowy embodied Sauron to attain Gandalf’s release is almost ridiculous in its obvious attempt to give fans of the Lord of the Rings movies a last glimpse at some of their favorites from that trilogy, even though the scene they are in does absolutely nothing to advance the plot of this particular film. It is done simply to provide a connection for The Hobbit with that larger story.
One addition to the story that is not terrible is the occasionally moving love affair that the screenwriters introduce between the dwarf Kili, Thorin’s nephew (Aidan Turner), and the completely fabricated elf-warrior princess Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). The romance gives the film a point around which to build the theme of animosity between the two races (elves and dwarves) that exacerbates the ill-will that the elf king Thranduil (Lee Pace) has toward dwarves in general, and causes a rift with his son Legolas (Orlando Bloom, tossed into these movies to lure in fans of the original series). It also prefigures (in a sense, though because of the order of the films maybe it postfigures?) the mixed-race romance between Aragorn and Arwen in Lord of the Rings. Although Tolkien actually never describes a romance between elf and dwarf, Gimli’s adoration of Galadriel makes such a connection at least theoretically possible. We would probably care more about the Kili-Tauriel affair if the two were allowed to talk to each other a little more, or if any time were spent developing their characters, but there is no time in this movie for such frivolities when we have an epic battle to film!
Even Bilbo (Martin Freeman), the titular protagonist, is shortchanged in this film. He is allowed his moment of greatness, his dispensation of the Arkenstone, which in the novel is his finest hour and the culmination of his growth as a character, but here that act is superseded by what is clearly more important to the filmmakers in terms of time, energy, and emphasis: the interminable battle. Bilbo becomes little more than an observer in his own story in this movie.
For this is Thorin’s film. From the beginning of the trilogy, Jackson had decided to take a book that had been conceived as what Tolkien called a “faerie-story” and turn it into an epic, and that meant that the hobbit himself, the everyday hero who grows into his role in the great world, must be displaced as the protagonist by someone who could be made into a tragic hero of epic proportions. In Tolkien’s novel, Thorin Oakenshiled is initially a petty would-be monarch trying to get back the treasure he feels is rightly his. It is no great leap for him to become obsessed with the gold he has always sought and develop what the others call “dragon fever.” In Jackson’s retelling, Thorin is a great warrior from the beginning, determined to win back the glory of his grandfather’s kingdom. His fall is tragic and his courageous end a momentary return to his true self—not, as in the book, a final rising above himself. Those who know the book know how Bilbo’s last meeting with Thorin underscores Bilbo’s value. In this film version, it is just another way for Thorin to be more noble.
The defining characteristic of a faerie-story as Tolkien conceived it was what he called the “eucatastrophe”—the sudden unlooked-for salvation that comes unexpectedly and that for Tolkien symbolized the gift of grace. When that happens in The Battle of the Five Armies, it is barely noticed. Indeed, my wife actually asked me afterward, “So how did the battle end?” Tolkien would have been appalled. The grace is supposed to be unexpected—not, as in the film, unnoticed.
Because, indeed, all that anybody has eyes for in this film is the battle. The film essentially covers the last five chapters, or about 45 pages, of the novel. It covers four of those chapters in perhaps 15 minutes apiece, and spends about six or seven weeks on the battle itself. That, at least, is how it seems. Every single blow struck by every major character, and several minor ones, must be rendered with great precision and with appropriately noble looks. Long, serious ones. It’s very much like watching somebody else play a video game. Hour after hour. After hour. Which explains my wife’s other strong reaction to the movie: “OMG, I have never been so bored in my life.”
Trust me, I love J.R.R. Tolkien. And I believe that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the great achievements in film. And I truly wanted to like this movie, despite my disappointment in the previous Hobbit films. I didn’t. If by some bizarre quirk of fate Peter Jackson ever reads this review, I would give him this suggestion: take the eight hours compiled by these three Hobbit films and edit out everything that isn’t in the actual book. Then edit the battle scenes down to only what is absolutely necessary. Put it all together and you might end up with a passable facsimile of a decent film of The Hobbit. Then provide a DVD of it free of charge to every moviegoer who wasted the price of admission on the mish-mash that was these three films. Two Jacquelyn Susanns for this one, and only because of the visual effects.
Anyone making a film of the epic story of Moses and the Ten Commandments must inevitably deal with the 600-pound gorilla that is Cecile B. DeMille. DeMille invented and perfected the biblical epic in the early days of Hollywood, and brought it to the pinnacle of success with his 1956 epic The Ten Commandments. That film featured a princely Yul Brynner as the Pharaoh Rameses in the same year he won the Academy Award for his memorable performance in The King and I, opposing a young and vital Charlton Heston in the role that made him famous. Those who remember only the crusty old Heston and his unsettling NRA rhetoric tend to forget what a towering screen presence he could be in epic roles like Ben-Hur and Moses. I remember as a child (yes, I really am that old) seeing lines of people stretching around the block waiting to get in to see DeMille’s four-hour extravaganza. The Ten Commandments is still, when earnings are adjusted for inflation, the seventh top grossing film ever made, in the company of Gone with the Wind, Star Wars, Titanic, and The Sound of Music. And despite its admittedly corny story and silly dialogue, it is inevitably televised annually during the season of Passover/Easter, and thus remains one of the best-known of all classic films.
So the first question that might be asked about Ridley Scott’s new epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, is why would he want to make it? It was done with phenomenal success 58 years ago, so why not just declare victory and move on? Why revisit it now? Is it the director of that most successful of modern epics, Gladiator, challenging the master on his own home field? Is it a cynical ploy to lure evangelical Christians into the movie houses with something that could be a great cash cow? Is it a search for faith on the part of the avowed agnostic Scott, exploring the material as a kind of personal exploration (as Lew Wallace did in writing the original novel Ben-Hur, only to find himself converted in the end)?
If Scott wanted to out-epic DeMille, the one area that seems fair game in 2014 is in special effects. DeMille’s film won its only Academy Award in the area of visual effects, and it was well-earned: the spectacular Red Sea crossing was a technological marvel in 1956, and is still remarkably effective for a film from the pre-Star Wars era. But what DeMille achieved with a cast of thousands Scott is able to surpass with computer generated graphics that produce a cast of hundreds of thousands. The battle scenes in Exodus: Gods and Kings are worthy successors of the kind of spectacle created in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the plagues of Egypt are presented in realistic horror, while the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the sea is a true modern technical marvel.
If only that was all it took to make a great movie, then Avatar, for instance, would truly have been the “game-changer” that the hype said it was in 2009. But as it turned out, it was The Hurt Locker that ran away with the Oscar that year. Why? Because it’s great writing and great acting that make a great movie. Everything else is window dressing.
And there is some great window dressing in Exodus: Gods and Kings. Aside from the stunning visual effects, Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is lovely to look at, Janty Yates’ costumes are gorgeous, and Alberto Iglesias’s music is appropriately epic without overwhelming the visuals. But let’s talk about the story for a moment.
Although the film is entitled Exodus, it dismisses much of that ancient text in favor of borrowings from DeMille and his non-biblical sources (Moses and Rameses are raised together and so their competition is a kind of sibling rivalry; Moses is a general in Pharaoh’s army), from misunderstandings of what the bible story actually says (in Exodus, the Israelites have been in Egypt for 400 years, but become enslaved only when a pharaoh rises who “knew not Joseph”; Scott’s film insists repeatedly that they have been slaves for 400 years), and from the screenwriters’ own imaginations (Pharaoh hangs a Jewish family every day that the Israelites don’t surrender Moses to him; Moses trains a faction of Israelites as guerilla fighters to attack Egyptian strongholds)—presumably such additions are to make the story more appealing to modern audiences. Here’s a news flash: the story has been around for nearly 3,000 years and people have always found it moving. Changing it to make it into a modern action movie is not making it more effective.
Which brings me to the question of why the writers—it takes four of them (Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, and Steven Zaillian) to botch the story up this badly—chose to leave out what they did: the most dramatic part of the story has always been in the suspense created when Moses visits Pharaoh time and again while the plagues are occurring, reminding him that the Hebrew God demands that he “let my people go,” only to have Pharaoh rebuff the plea, thereby ensuring another plague. Not once does this happen in Scott’s film—although he adds a non-biblical scene in which Moses (Christian Bale) visits Pharaoh (Joel Edgerton, from The Great Gatsby and Zero Dark Thirty) at night and essentially threatens his life. Instead of this series of confrontations, Scott, or his writers, choose to present the plagues as a set of natural disasters that essentially follow logically from one another—the frogs leave the river once it has turned bloody; the flies are created by maggots in the dead frogs; the diseases are the result of the flies. And so on. It is as if the agnostic Scott wants to present the plagues as natural occurrences rather than sent by God. But when it comes to the deaths of the firstborn of Egypt, there is no other conclusion possible but that God has sent this plague. So what was the point of presenting the earlier plagues otherwise? Even the Red Sea crossing is depicted as if it were the result of a natural weather phenomenon—until the tidal wave that comes in along with four great waterspouts in tow that create a virtually apocalyptic catastrophe that comes a little too coincidentally just in time to save the Israelites from slaughter.
Another of the most dramatic parts of the Exodus story is the institution of Passover. Scott has his Moses order the Jews to slaughter lambs and smear the blood over their doors, but the frightening picture of the Israelites having their meal of unleavened bread as they huddle in their homes praying that the angel of death will pass them by and spare their firstborn is not presented. We do see Pharaoh’s reaction to his own child’s death, but the Jews are invisible in the disaster. This systematic rejection of the parts of the story that are in fact the most dramatic, and the replacing of them with newly imagined extra-biblical events achieves something that DeMille never even dreamed of: it manages to make the story of the Exodus remarkably boring. I had to shake myself to stay awake in the long “plagues” section, when there was virtually no human interaction and only some computer generated shenanigans going on.
In the Bible, God first speaks to Moses through a burning bush. It is the bush itself that is the “angel” or messenger of god. Scott is not content with that. First, he has Moses caught in a landslide and hit in the head, so that we are never sure whether Moses actually speaks with God or whether the encounter is in his imagination. This could be an interesting approach, replacing the certainty of Moses’ story as it stands with a story of a true test of faith. But that is not what Scott does. He makes God’s spokesman a preadolescent boy (played by Isaac Andrews), about the same age as Moses’ own son. The child appears several times to Moses, though when Joshua observes these conversations from afar, he sees only Moses talking to himself. The real problem, though, is that God comes off as a petulant child at times, wanting to show himself as mightier than Pharaoh While there is a hint of this in Exodus itself, the character of this child-god is questionable: He constantly taunts Moses sarcastically for no apparent reason.
One aspect of this is worth talking about: early in the film, Moses remarks that the name “Israel” means “one that wrestles with God,” and the sometimes argumentative relationship between Moses and the 11-year old God in the film is contentious in that way. It remains contentious through the film, and part of the reason for this is Moses’ stubborn ego. He consistently believes that he can rely on his own strength, on his skills as a soldier, to gain Israel’s release from bondage, rather than trusting solely in God’s power. He ultimately throws his sword away, into the sea—has he, at that point, learned to trust in God?
Perhaps. But this brings us to the characters and the actors who play them. I’ve just told you all I could make out of Moses’ character in this movie. Bale shows a range of feeling—anger at how his people are treated, love for his family and sorrow at leaving them (which, of course, he does not do in the Bible), regret at making an enemy of his adopted brother, and the like. But we see him chiefly on the surface. We don’t really know what’s inside of him; most importantly we don’t know what his faith is. And for this story, that’s pretty significant.
Edgerton is given perhaps the most sympathetic role here. Far from being a simple villain, Pharaoh is jealous of but sensitive to his brother, but dominated by his mother, and apparently truly grief stricken at the loss of his son. But as with Moses, he seems all surface. His face remains impassive through the entire film. One feels compelled to ask him, if you had an emotion, what would it look like?
Much of this is in the writing. The actors are just not given much to work with, and what they do has to be shoehorned in between special effects and quirky twists in the plot, while being denied the most dramatic parts of the story. John Turturo manages to get a little bit of mileage out of his small role as Rameses’ father, the Pharaoh Seti, and subtly manages to imply to the audience and to Rameses himself that he prefers Moses to his own son. Ben Kingsley as Nun is the face of the Israelite slaves, but aside from looking appropriately frightened or concerned at times, has little to do. Even worse is the use of Sigourney Weaver as Pharaoh’s mother Tuya, who has two brief snatches of dialogue where she appears to be the force behind the throne, but otherwise is invisible. Perhaps her best scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, and perhaps they would have provided a little more insight into Rameses’ character. But alas, all we have to go on is the final cut.
And admittedly it’s not as bad as many critics have suggested. At the time of this writing, the film has a paltry 28% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. That score may reflect not the overall quality of the film on its own, but more the disappointment at what seems largely a failure to being this oh-so promising material to life. And perhaps, a failure to live up to DeMille’s legacy. I had high hopes for this film myself, but I’m afraid I can only give it two Jacquelyn Susanns. If I were you, I’d go to see The Homesman this week instead.