By: Steve Pulaski
Samson presents an intriguing diversion for Pure Flix, the faith-based studio that has found sustainable success with films like The Case for Christ, Woodlawn, and both God's Not Dead and its sequel. Since their inception, Pure Flix's focus has largely been on creating contemporary parables for modern audiences with broadly drawn emotions, intensely Christian themes, and a strong sense of "morally good." Samson shows the studio has an interest of breaking that mold by dramatizing historical stories with biblical characters, perhaps to democratize their reach. You probably couldn't buy a non-believer's ticket for them to go see God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness next month, but you might, with any luck, get them to watch Samson on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Maybe. Pure Flix has faith, at least.
The film is divided into two distinct halves. The first is set in 1170 BC Gaza, with the Hebrew community enslaved by the Philistines, led by King Balek (Billy Zane) and his vile son, Prince Rallah (Twilight's Jackson Rathbone). The only hope for the Jews is Samson (Taylor James), a judge of God who was told by the Almighty that he would lead his people to freedom by way of his godlike strength. Samson declines to follow the path God has lain before him, yet still forfeits drinking alcohol, touching the dead, and cutting his hair, for by doing so, his powers will be revoked. His mother and father (Lindsay Wagner and Rutger Hauer), however, harbor disappointment in their son's rejection of his divine powers, and are even more aghast when he announces his intentions to marry Taren (Frances Sholto-Douglas), a Philistine, who, along with her father, is a slave to Rallah. Samson finally comes to recognize his strengths in retaliation to Rallah's diabolical acts, single-handedly slaughtering hundreds of Philistine soldiers with nothing but the jawbone of an ass.
Following that, which takes up almost an hour of the film's runtime, we pick up "Many Years Later," where Samson leads the still-enslaved Hebrews, who are starving due to a lack of food and practically begging him to lead a rebellion against King Balek. Samson still believes that he could make a deal with the heartless ruler, and soon finds what he perceives to be solace in the arms of Delilah (Caitlin Leahy). Delilah, however, is nothing more than a Philistine mole, with the goal of expelling Samson's powers by getting him to commit the aforementioned no-nos he swore off years ago.
Going in only familiar with the vague caricature of Samson and neither his biblical significance nor story, Bruce Macdonald's retelling provided commendable narrative clarity with its linear plot. Despite a plethora of writers (Jason Baumgardner, Zach Smith, Timothy Ratajczak, and Galen Gilbert) and 12 producers, Samson maintains a sense of stability as it essentially accounts for the two major chapters in its titular character's life. In style, the film feels like a throwback to religious epics of the 1970s, with its ancient costume designs and the age-old process of concluding a scene and starting a new one with an establishing shot of a vast location. It's impressive in a quaintly old-fashioned way, as it doesn't try to emulate the larger-than-life scale of films likePompeii because it knows that doing so would prove to be insufficient and hokey on its part.
James does a fine job at characterizing Samson. At first looking as if he's nothing more than a Taylor Lautner-pretty-boy, James proves to be up to the challenge during the film's dramatic points. He conveys the agony of Samson very well, especially considering the film's screenplay becomes minimized in narrative during any given sequence's climactic moments, almost exclusively relying on the raw emotional power of its ensemble. In addition, Rathbone gives a committed performance, doing more than just chewing scenery as a villain, but creating a real sinister edge to his character thanks to his snarky facial expressions. Finally, though their roles are a tad slight and could've easily been expanded, Sholto-Douglas and Leahy carve solid performances out of what they have, as well.
Samson does get bogged down a bit by a shaggy third act, which struggles to coherently summarize the actions of its many characters in a communicable manner. It also erects too much of a visual sameness as the gloom of the story intensifies. With its special effects, it finds itself hindered from the same issue that the $200 million Black Panther, released this same weekend, did and that's in its use of green-screen technology to capture the large landscapes ubiquitous in the film. Quite frequently, cinematographers Trevor Michael Brown and Brian Shanley opt for using shot-on-location footage of South Africa, but when they choose to use extraneous technology in effort to get an allegedly perfect, or at least clearer, starry sky or clifftop, the production becomes noticeably artificial.
It's worth noting that the film can be described as overly theatrical and sometimes cloyingly sentimental. 30 minutes in, it becomes abundantly clear that Pure Flix has not taken up the initiative of downplaying the emotion in their films in effort to produce some level of abstraction. On the contrary; every emotion, whether triumphant or distraught, prideful or disgraced, must be embellished by an overbearing score and dramatic camerawork. While a real distraction during some scenes involving Taren and her contentious relationship with Rallah, the tonal obviousness somewhat works for a story like this, and doesn't pose a damaging threat to the film as a whole, especially when you see how much of it plays to the strengths of the genre.
Samson is a likable and effective change-of-pace for Pure Flix, and I can only hope it breeds similar stories going forward. Its stumbles as a film are there, but they are nothing like some of the condescending ideas and narrow-minded themes present in some of the studio's efforts as well as other independent Christian films. Beyond being workable in spite of its weaker tendencies, Samson shows potential growth for a studio that has been stuck in the past with its stories for too long and in need of a creative alternative.