The Book of Eli
Director : The Hughes Brothers
Screenplay : Gary Whitta
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2010
Stars : Denzel Washington (Eli), Gary Oldman (Carnegie), Mila Kunis (Solara), Ray Stevenson (Redridge), Jennifer Beals (Claudia), Evan Jones (Martz), Joe Pingue (Hoyt), Frances de la Tour (Martha), Michael Gambon (George), Tom Waits (Engineer), Chris Browning (Hijack Leader)
Note: This review contains some plot spoilers, so if you have not yet seen the film, proceed at your own risk.
The postapocalyptic genre, with its dour terrain, physical hardships, and frequently nihilistic overtones, is tricky terrain for movie stars to inhabit: While the Mad Max films (1979-85) turned Mel Gibson into an international phenomenon, The Postman (1997) very nearly buried Kevin Costner. Thus, it is something of a surprise to see Oscar winner Denzel Washington putting on haggard clothing and taking up the role of a wandering loner on a divine mission in The Book of Eli, a curious twist on the genre that keeps all the desolate visual trappings but uses them in the service of an overtly religious narrative that hinges on the transcendence of belief.
Set roughly three decades after a devastating nuclear war turned the earth into a perpetual ash-gray desert baked by the sun’s unimpeded rays, The Book of Eli unfolds slowly and methodically, introducing us to the titular wanderer as he makes his way down the shattered remnants of the interstate highway system, occasionally interrupted by roving biker gangs who seem to want nothing more than to inflict pain and misery. With virtually no one to talk to, Eli is naturally a man of few words, and while he shows his humanity via the music selections on the ancient iPod he has somehow kept in working order, he can also wield a mean blade and take care of his own (when he tells a toothless marauder that if he touches him again he’s going to lose his hand, he means it quite literally). There is something very nearly divine about Eli as he heads “west”--a warrior-saint in heavy sunglasses--which is enhanced by Washington’s star persona, which is sometimes derided as being simply “noble,” but in fact has the flinty edge of being earned.
Things take a turn for the ugly when Eli comes across a ramshackle town ruled by the fascistic Carnegie (Gary Oldman, looking particularly rough even by postapocalyptic standards), who maintains his despotic reign because he knows of a source for clean water and commands a small army of punk warriors to enforce his will. The town’s linear main street, frightened citizens, and central saloon contribute plenty of Old West trappings, a staple undercurrent of the genre that somehow never quite manages to lose its flavor (perhaps it’s because the western is the quintessential American myth, so it makes sense that, in the aftermath of utter devastation, we would somehow return to it to find ourselves). We are also introduced to Solara (Mila Kunis), a young barmaid who is kept under Carnegie’s thumb because her blind mother (Jennifer Beals) is his wife/primary victim.
It is at this point that first-time scribe Gary Whitta’s deliberately obtuse screenplay begins to reveal some of its secrets, as we discover that the big, leatherbound book that Eli is carrying with him is a King James Bible and Carnegie would like nothing more than to get his hands on it, not because of its spiritual value, but because he knows that he can use it as a rhetorical weapon to enhance and consolidate his power. Eli, however, has different plans for the Good Book, which turns the film into an interesting, if at times labored, metaphor for the dual-edged nature of religion: When employed with a good heart and the right intentions, it can raise humankind up to heights unimagined, and when abused and misused it can result in … well … an apocalypse.
Director Allen and Albert Hughes, who exploded onto the scene in 1993 with their impressive feature debut Menace II Society, have been largely silent since 2001’s From Hell, an underrated thriller about Jack the Ripper that was also a complex exploration of society’s underbelly. The Book of Eli is similar in that it takes a familiar and arguably overworked genre and uses it as the vehicle for a surprisingly serious, spiritually minded story. The film’s Biblical overtones are both overt (Eli as the wandering desert prophet following the voice of God) and subtle, particularly the way it uses society’s bombed-out remains as a constant reminder of the transitory nature of the material. Characters in the film barter with the remnants of western civilization for a drink of water, but what they really need is some kind of spiritual salvation (the story’s hints of cannibalism and its detrimental physical and mental effects provides some underlying horror, but also a metaphor for our tendency to eat each other in pursuit of our own survival).
Of course, all the grim thematic seriousness doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a few bloody hand-to-hand fights, which the Hughes Brothers stage as either sharply etched graphic novel inserts or vertiginous long-take roundelays. There is also some sublime gallows humor, particularly in a sequence where Eli and Solara come across the home of a resilient, but possibly insane older couple (Frances de la Tour and Michael Gambon) who take them in and then prove to be worthy allies in combat. Not all of the film works, of course (the depiction of social collapse feels too derivative and uncomplicated), but you can’t fault The Book of Eli for its ambitions, particularly in melding the coarse edges of a particularly brutal genre with a genuine sense of spiritual uplift and unapologetic religiosity that is generally nonexistent in Hollywood cinema. It may very well be the first R-rated postapocalyptic nightmare movie that your conservative grandma might like.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Universal Pictures