The Book of Eli (R) 118 min. Directed by: Albert & Allen Hughes Written by: Gary Whitta Starring: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Michael Gambon, Jennifer Beals, Ray Stevenson Cinematography: Don Burgess Original Score: Atticus Ross
The apocalypse has never looked better or felt sharper than it does in The Book of Eli, the newest end-of-the-world thriller from the previously MIA Hughes Brothers.
Bearing the brunt of the movie’s gritty but hopeful through line comes Denzel Washington, striding through the ashy, barren wastelands of an America gone to permanent ruin. He’s carrying with him what he believes is the hope of humanity. Unfortunately, the opportunistic despot, Carnegie (played by a deviously bloated Gary Oldman) also desires it, and the rest of the picture develops into the modern American equivalent of a samurai movie. You can cite the western if you want, but Eli’s poise, resolve and code of combat suggest the bushido of a wandering ronin. Throw in brutal but fluid action sequences, an interesting and thought provoking spiritual subtext, and you have the best post-apocalyptic thrill ride since The Road Warrior.
Recently, perhaps linked to a communal anxiety about social decline, there have been numerous pictures detailing the end of all things. Eli starts out as more of the same, but offers something that most pictures of it’s ilk don’t; hope. There may be very little of it, and it may be ephemeral at best, but Washington’s Eli carries it with him like a burning beacon and it motivates him to bring a steely resolve and a swift justice to the barbarism he finds in his midst.
In the McCarthy adaptation, we watched the end times blur the moral fortitude of Mortensen’s Man to the point that he strands a defenseless wretch without clothes and protection just because he’s been wronged. This might be a relatively honest portrayal of human behavior, but it rendered that film flat and gray. A long slog through the death of mankind. Book knows we need a little more if we are going to follow through such turbulent waters, and it gives us Washington as a terrifying and welcome paradox; a righteous man…with a machete.
Eli has been walking his way across the country for some time when he ends up happening upon a small, dusty town overseen by Carnegie, a man who knows where the wellsprings are and has a series of refurbished towns going up around them. What he doesn’t have is a means to properly motivate a young populace who were born into this sinkhole of a planet. It is implied that a nuclear war ripped a whole in the sky, and the Sun did the rest of the damage. What he needs now is something to cultivate hope, purpose and structure. When he learns that Eli possesses a certain book, he sets out with his henchman (led by the effective Ray Stevenson) to claim it.
The essential structure of the movie operates around that basic premise, but what works is the dichotomy between all of the characters and the plausibility that the visual aspects of the film give the story. In addition to those mentioned, there is also Jennifer Beals, long past her Flashdance days, as a blind woman whom Carnegie both dominates and dotes on, Solara (Mila Kunis) her daughter, and Michael Gambon as a cannibalistic farmer who, along with his wife, has managed to keep his ranch functioning as an oasis of civility amidst the chaos. All of them orbit Washington, who is giving one of the finest and most specific performances of his career.
The world at large has fallen so far that men will kill other men just for a single solitary packet of wet naps. The youth are so shiftless and grim that one hears a baby wailing in the streets and no one even turns around. It’s the worst parts of the biblical account of Lamentations, and into this Eli comes like an Old Testament prophet. He is an honest and forthright man. When he kills he does so without hesitation or passion, swinging his weapons with utter conviction and dedication.
Carnegie sends Solara to his room to bed him, but he offers her a meal instead—she’s never eaten across from someone before in a social ritual—and when he prays with her, his prayers too are simple and immediate. “Thank you Lord for shelter and the gift of companionship.” He is headed West, following a voice that is spurring him onwards. Washington makes him sympathetic and heroic, but we never forget he’s a killer. He draws the line between the character’s courage and his self-absorption and lets us glimpse walls falling down that Eli himself is not even aware of.
Kunis has finally shrugged off the last vestiges of her 70’s Show persona. Granted, it’s the typical youth following the aging warrior, but she’s got a fiery resilience and an inherent sadness that works here. At some point she’s decided to build off the idea that her character has only ever known a reality of hardship and delivers surprise into Solara’s eyes when she realizes that the world can not only be kinder than she thought, it can still be crueler too. In the universe of Eli, even hers has been a privileged life. Beals is good in her brief part, but there’s not much to her character. Still, it’s nice to see her again, and at first I didn’t recognize her. Hopefully this might draw some welcome attention back her way.
Gambon also is in precious little of the film, but he makes the scene he is in terrifically entertaining. Lets just say it involves lots and lots of guns. Finally, there is Goldman playing the corrupt Samurai Lord or the Cattle Baron or whatever you want to call it. He’s a cracked leader who has abandoned a sense of anything but selfish pursuit. He’s chomping up scenery like he’s in a Luc Besson film, slightly dialed down. It shows exquisite restraint on his part to not utter the lines “Get me….EVVVVERRRYOONNNE!” even though the Hughes give him ample opportunity to do so.
As scripted, The Book of Eli is an ambitious but goofy piece of work. What transforms it into proper science fiction and a movie well worth returning to, over and over, is the Hughes direction. The set design is wonderfully real and nicely stylized. Everything looks worn down and dirty, but it isn’t so repellent that we feel like we need change our socks the minute the movie is over. There’s a terrible beauty to the landscapes presented, and some variation as well. The opening scene where a hunter stalks a hairless cat through a forest of falling ash has to be seen to be believed.
The action scenes are perfectly choreographed and have the benefit of being coherently filmed. There are few cuts, and what we have to savor is a balletic dance of death that lasts maybe minutes at best. I was reminded of the Zatoichi: The Blind Samurai films from the 60s and 70s. A shootout later in the film is crafted in such a way that we feel we are catching everything from the bullets perspective and then are violently turned around and hurtling into the barrel end of a gatling gun. The thrills are legitimately thrilling and the scenes have an immediacy because we can identify with Washington’s Eli. When Solara joins him on his quest, this Lone Wolf finally has a Cub to train, and the movie explores yet another facet of the character.
There is some great direction going on in Book of Eli. The Hughes may give us just one too many scenes of Denzel walking in badass slow motion across the broiling desert, but they have a steady hand on the film and they really make the premise sing despite some goofy speed bumps. Chief among these is making the faith aspect stand up and command respect amidst so much potential schlock. They let a lot of their film ride on Washington’s shoulders, but they never let it get beyond them. Each piece has been carefully considered including the potentially embarrassing ending (which I honestly didn’t see coming) and the strange, discordant score by Atticus Ross that sounds like Tangerine Dream learned to play the didgeridoo.
The whole thing feels like a Ridley Scott film from the 80s, but there’s more inherent humanity in the character interactions. I personally loved the film and was surprised by how effective it’s spiritual angle ends up being. I walked away thinking that this was the first time I felt any sense of uplift at the end of an apocalypse movie. And that indeed is something to take note of.