The film takes place 30 years after a nuclear war “tore a hole in the sky.” Denzel Washington is the title character, a sensitive loner who is making his way on foot west across the ruins of the southwestern United States. For a few nearly silent scenes, we follow Eli through his stripped-down existence as he forages for food and supplies, and holes up for the night in an abandoned house, reading what may be the last known copy of the King James Bible in existence.
Eli tries to keep to himself, but he carries a bow and arrow, a gun and a machete, and is very willing to defend himself, as some unfortunate road warriors find out.
Eli arrives in a dirty little town that is presided over by Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a book-loving despot who runs the town because he controls the water. Carnegie’s lover is Claudia (Jennifer Beals), and her daughter is Solara (Mila Kunis), who at first is Carnegie’s offering to Eli, and then becomes his apprentice and traveling companion. When Carnegie finds out about the Bible, he wants it for himself. He knows the power the book can have, and he wants to be the one to wield it. When Eli doesn’t agree, Carnegie of course chases him.
The film’s plot is a little familiar. The Book of Eli is just the latest in a continuum of mysterious stranger films that has existed for decades, no matter whether the stranger is a samurai or a gunslinger or a gangster. Clint Eastwood could have played this part in the ’60s or ’70s. And as far as post-apocalypse films go, we’ve seen the oceans of wrecked cars and marauding gangs of motorcycle-riding psychos in plenty of movies already.
Not a lot feels new here, but the filmmakers do it well. Directors Albert and Allen Hughes, veterans of films such as Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, shot the film on high-definition digital video (using the Red camera), with the help of cinematographer Don Burgess. Using a virtually monochromatic color palette, full of a wide variety of browns, beiges and grays, the Hughes brothers make the desert wasteland interesting and shoot the action cleanly. The film’s first action sequence, which has Eli slaughtering a bunch of thugs in a freeway underpass, is shot in one static take, completely in silhouette. A later shootout is also done in one shot, this time with the camera zooming in and out of the action.
The actors also bring a little added class to the proceedings. Washington makes a good mysterious tough guy, bringing his standard gravitas to the role, particularly when he is reciting from the bible, completely in tune with the words’ power and poetry. Oldman doesn’t quite go over the top as the film’s sneering villain, but he brings a nice energy to the film, which can sometimes get bogged down in its own portentousness.
Kunis is really the only odd man out. She was good in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Extract, but she is about 10 times too glamorous for this future world. Maybe she found a hoard of moisturizer and mascara somewhere; perhaps it’s the same place people keep finding all the really excellent sunglasses we see them sporting in the film.
But the Hughes brothers do a nice job of surrounding the main actors with an offbeat, colorful supporting cast, such as Tom Waits as the proprietor of a fix-it shop in Carnegie’s town. Ray Stevenson (Rome) plays Redridge, Carnegie’s chief henchman, with a little more dignity than the character would receive in most films.
The script, by Gary Whitta, occasionally interjects nice bits of flavor that keep it from being merely a by-the-numbers action film. Eli and Solara take a little side trip to a farmhouse owned by George and Martha (Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour), where they are served tea and shown a graveyard that contains all of the couple’s previous visitors.
The script also manages to avoid a purely Bible-thumping message. It can be preachy from time to time, but I don’t think the movie is necessarily purely pro-Christian. In fact, it has just as much to say about the power of religion to control the masses, or people’s willingness to kill or be killed for religion, as it does about the validity of Christianity. It may be pro-faith or pro-spirituality, but not necessarily pro-Christianity.
At its heart, though, The Book of Eli is more concerned with cracking skulls than with saving souls. It’s an atmospheric, well-directed, post-apocalyptic western that is distinguished by good actors and an occasionally odd script that gives the movie a little more depth (and, toward the end, a little more utter insanity) than most films of its genre.
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