Film Review: “Samson” (2018)

I went into Samson expecting an absolutely dreadful viewing experience. After all, what more could one expect from a low-budget epic from a faith-based studio? I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t the chore to sit through that I thought it would be. It’s far from a “good” film, but that isn’t for lack of trying.

Indeed, on a scale of “awful” to “excellent,” I would have to rate the film at the lower end of “fair.” While some might find this too generous, I do believe in taking films seriously, regardless of how sloppy (or undeveloped) they might be.

While the film lacks the brutal, vicious intensity of DeMille’s Technicolor version (preferring instead the more “realistic” color currently in vogue in filmmaking), there are a few moments that have a certain savage grace about them. Samson’s murderous rampage that sees the death of several thousand Philistines is one such, though it relies more on fast-paced editing than the glam of special effects to accomplish its effect (which, given the budget, was probably a wise move).

Taylor James makes a fine Samson, with his slightly boyish face, overdeveloped musculature, and rakish (almost childish) charm. He is the perfect sort of grand fool, a man a little too fond of the pleasures of the flesh and a little too distracted from the grand destiny that God has decreed for him. In many ways, he’s the high point of the movie, for all that he’s probably the greenest of the actors.

That being said, there is much about this film that could have been so much better. There are some legitimately good acting talents that try to do the most with what they’ve been given–Billy Zane makes a good egomaniac as the Philistine king, and Rutger Hauer and Lindsey Wagner offer up the values of humility and family duty as Samson’s parents. However, it’s hard to shake the sense that the three of them are basically just earning a paycheck, but they do the most with the threadbare roles that they’ve been given.

Unfortunately, the film also has several talents who are less than stellar and are incredibly frustrating to watch. One of these is the villain of the piece, the Philistine prince Rallah, played with overwrought histrionics by Twilight alum Jackson Rathbone. While one might think that such a distinguished-sounding name might grant the role some sort of gravitas, that would be wrong. Rallah is basically a brat prince, with little or no convincing motivation beyond wanton cruelty (and not even interestingly staged wanton cruelty). Billy Zane would have made a far better villain and, had the screenwriters wanted to, they certainly could have played up the political angle. While they gesture toward the greater Mediterranean world with mentions of Persia and Egypt, these are frustratingly underdeveloped.

Oh, and did I mention Samson has a brother? Who’s blonde? And incredibly annoying? He, like Rallah, takes up far too much narrative space that could have been more usefully allocated elsewhere. For some reason that I personally cannot fathom, the writers decided that a brother would make Samson a more interesting character, when in fact the brother is more of a distraction than anything else. Add that on to the abysmally bad beards that everyone decides to grow after a narratively week segue of “many years later,” and you get a good sense of what the weak spots in the film are.

Indeed, Samson wastes far too many opportunities than it should have. Part of this, I suspect, has to do with the fact that it tries too hard to be an epic, and it just does not have the budget or the writing talent to make this work. Epics need to be long to be effective, and they should ideally feature truly eye-popping action, spectacles, and vistas. If Samson wanted to go that route, it should have upped the budget. Or, alternatively, it could have made this into more of a political or personal drama. But, by trying to play the game of the epic but not including the elements that go into that particular form, it ends up not succeeding as well as it might have. Which, as I’ve said, really is a shame, as they have some true talented to work with.

Most frustratingly, the film only introduces the Delilah subplot in the last 45 minutes or so of the film, and it lacks the dramatic tension that I suspect most people expect when going in to see a movie about the biblical Samson. After all, it wasn’t an accident that the titan DeMille chose to focus his story on Samson and Delilah, for he understood very well that part of what makes the biblical narrative so compelling is the power of sex. Unfortunately, the makers of this film didn’t seem to get that memo, and so this film is largely devoid of the sex. This Delilah has very little motivation and very little character development, and that really is a shame, as Caitlin Leahy is a fine actress and could really have done something meaty with the role had she been given the chance.

Instead, Samson seems far more interested in the relationships among men and between Samson and his good-girl sweetheart Taren (who is so milquetoast as to be a nonentity. At least the DeMille version had Angela Lansbury in the similar role). Which, while I’m as much of a fan of the homosocial as any queer scholar, that’s only true when the other male actors are interesting to watch. In this case, it isn’t.

All in all, I found Samson easy to sit through, and it was better than I thought it would be. However, I also found it immensely frustrating, precisely because it seems to deliberately not play by the rules of the game it has chosen to play. While I’m more than willing to sit through a “biblical” film, I at least would like it to be a compelling film in its own right.

Here’s hoping for next time.

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