A film review by Craig J. Koban January 21, 2010

THE BOOK OF ELI jjj

2010, R, 118 mins.

 

Eli: Denzel Washington / Carnegie: Gary Oldman / Solara: Mila Kunis / Redridge: Ray Stevenson / Claudia: Jennifer Beals / Engineer: Tom Waits / George: Michael Gambon

Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes / Written by Gary Whitta

THE BOOK OF ELI’s overall success hinges on one very late, game breaking plot twist that is destined to polarize viewers for a long, long time.  I came out of the film thinking that people will either (a) just need to go with it and accept its improbability and sheer, unhinged audacity or (b)  absolutely detest it to the point where they think, under simple scrutiny, that it all but undermines the entire logic of the film and story.  

There is a dialogue exchange between two main characters during the proceedings that, I think, cuts to the heart of the debate: "How do you know you are walking the right way?” she asks him, to which he directly responds, “Faith.”  One thing is for sure: if you fancy yourself a nitpicky and cynical filmgoer then you may need faith by the buckets in order to swallow THE BOOK OF ELI’s conclusion and big reveal, but I found myself oddly accepting it the more I thought about it.  It just seemed almost too hopelessly unbelievable, but the entire film built around it is so finely tailored, so well performed, and so exemplary directed that I was willing to throw logic out the window.  The twist is simultaneously unpredictable and not at all credible, but the journey towards it was entertaining and thoroughly involving. 

THE BOOK OF ELI – on top of its many narrative surprises – is also a fairly compelling hybrid film that constantly intoxicates audiences with how many different levels it works on:  At face value, it’s a dreary and desolate post-apocalyptic sci-fi film with echoes of past genre efforts like MAD MAX and THE ROAD, but it also works as a futuristic western that pays homage to many of its basic motifs (the drifter, man with no name anti hero, the vengeful and cruel villain that wants to enlist him, and many a slow motion shot that shows the hero sauntering through the town of bloodthirsty ruffians that the villain rules with an iron fist).  Beyond that, THE BOOK OF ELI also manages to be a deeply felt parable about the power of Christianity and faith and how the preservation of it during times of bottomless moral uncertainty is an impulse of both righteous and nefarious men.  Make no bones about it, THE BOOK OF ELI primarily exists as a kinetic action thriller with a fantastically assured despotic, scorched earth aesthetic, but the way it also squeezes in themes of resonating significance is one of its strongest traits, which is what ultimately helps elevate it beyond most other disposable post-apocalyptic efforts.  

30 years after a hinted-at, global nuclear war that has left the earth an ash-filled no-man’s land, we are introduced to Eli (Denzel Washington) that endlessly wanders what’s left of the United States.  The opening shot of the film that introduces us to the character is brilliant in terms of its execution and economy: In one long, fluid, and single camera move, we see a lifeless corpses that has apparently committed suicide, a hairless cat that wanders beside it to take a nibble out of it, followed by a long pan where we see Eli hidden and prepped to kill the feline for his next meal.  The bleakness of the atmosphere of this future dystopia is immediate, and the fact that the first 15 minutes or so have virtually no dialogue and relies solely on stunning and evocative imagery does wonders to immerse viewers in this putrefied and hopeless world.   

Eli seems like he has little purpose outside surviving the hellish and bombed out landscapes void of food and drinkable water, but he has a very heartfelt and determined mission:  For reasons unexplained at first, Eli has anointed himself the enterprise of heading as far into the western US as he can (apparently a much safer and cleaner area of the country) where he can help to replant a seed of hope and compassion in the last remnants of humanity there.  He has a very, very special book with him that seems to be the key to not only his spiritual journey, but also to imparting a renewed faith and integrity in many people feel has all but been destroyed.  

I don’t think it takes a genius to know which book I am talking about, but I will give you a hint: it has the words “Jesus”, "Christ," and “Our Lord” in it a lot, and it also is the last know copy of it left on the planet. 

Eli is on a peaceful “mission from Gawd," but that is not to say that this humble prophet will not unleash a biblical-sized can of whoop ass on anyone that stands in his way.  Along his travels he crosses paths with the filthiest and most vile cannibalistic scum that would like to feast on his flesh, which he manages to super humanly subdued and murder with Ninja-like dexterity and speed (and with the assistance of a ridiculously large and sharp scimitar).  His ferociously violent travels eventually find him to an Old West-ish town in the obligatory middle of nowhere, populated by the kind of reprehensible outlaws, thieves, and killers that certainly don’t like strangers proficient with swords and guns.  The town, as is the case with all Wild West towns in the movies, is run and overseen by a man named Carnegie (Gary Oldman, in a wonderful and refreshing turn playing pure, unadulterated villainy with a sniveling and boisterously over-the-top flair) who essentially owns the hearts and minds of the people under him.  

Of course, Carnegie is instantly impressed with the relative ease that Eli has with slicing and dicing through his lackeys during one hyper-bloody standoff at a local bar, but Eli, being solemnly introverted loner, just wants to be on his way.  However, things get complicated when it’s revealed that Carnegie has long sought after the very “Good Book” that Eli has in his possession, mostly because he believes that, once he has it, he can use its teachings for his warped agenda and, in turn, will then have power over just about anyone.  Understanding that having his sacred text anywhere close to this dictatorial lunatic would be a disaster, Eli manages to flee the town, but he is a bit encumbered with the accompaniment of a new sidekick of sorts in the form of Solara (Mila Kunis), an unusually attractive young woman (unusual considering the elements she was born into and was raised in) that seems compelled to follow Eli and help him after he has saved her life. 

A simplistic critical approach would be to inevitably compare THE BOOK OF ELI to the very recent THE ROAD, another post-apocalyptic film.  John Hillcoat’s film is infinitely more moving, wretchedly bleak, and tenderly humanistic with its story about a father and son struggling to survive and live an ethical life in a world void of a moral code, but THE BOOK OF ELI could not be any more different.  Whereas it does share THE ROAD’s impeccable, immersive, and remarkable attention to production design (they both use location shooting and visual effects trickery to provide an astonishing evocation of a harsh and cruelly ravished world shaken by past calamities) and its willingness to suggest the causes of the apocalypse without slavishly wasting time with unnecessary exposition, THE BOOK OF ELI is more concerned with making its post-apocalyptic tale one more akin to a stylish and aggressive graphic novel come to life: It's more about sustaining its wondrous visuals, its suspenseful mood and tone, its crisp and kinetic action scenes, and its reverence of its western film antecedents.   

ELI was directed by the Detroit-born Hughes Brothers, Albert and Allen, marking their directorial return after a near 10-year absence, and they have developed a very strong reputation with their very sparse resumes as being filmmakers with a fine attention to sleek, consummate visuals combined with engaging stories (their first film, 1993’s low budget gangbanger indie effort, MENACE II SOCIETY, was an astoundingly authoritative debut effort, and their last film, the stupendously underrated gothic horror thriller FROM HELL from 2001 showed off their range and willingness to tackle any time period and genre).  Now with ELI you could not have three vastly different films, but what does remain is the brothers' virtuoso abilities to create ample visual interest with setups and camera moves that are stunning and exhilarating in their minimalism.  

Using digital cameras, dark and foreboding cinematography, familiar landscapes, and ample visual effects ingenuity, the duo are kind of unsung when it comes to making conventional scenes and action set pieces feel so much fresher and new than they would have been under less imaginative and resourceful eyes.  Just consider an early battle scene – involving Eli and countless armed marauders that is done with one simple camera set up and set in stark and eerie silhouette – where they do what so many other action directors fail to do by letting the action play out with a precision and clarity (unlike, say, the Michael Bays of the world).  The Hughes avoid the trap of cutting every millisecond and barraging viewers with hyperactive visual-auditory noise.  And look at another late scene in the film where one key character is shot and left for dead: the way they juxtapose and edit images and sparingly dial sound in and out of the montage creates such a hauntingly surreal sense of dread and pathos.  In lesser director’s hands, moments like this would fall flat with a mechanical thud. 

The performances are also rock solid: Washington’s prophet/messenger/shotgun-pumping, sword slashing super hero with the Lord as his co-pilot is nicely underplayed, which makes the character feel all the more credible despite that twist at the end that may or may not have you question the veracity of the character.  Gary Oldman, who has been so deliciously malevolent playing remorseless sociopaths in the past, returns to splendid villainous form here in a performance as the evil town ringleader that manages to confidently and adeptly segue in and out of low key and soft spoken antagonism and outright, salivating and histrionic madness (Oldman is one of the very few actors that can ham it up to mesmerizingly scary levels).  Jessica Beals also has a nice supporting role as a blind wife to Carnagie that proves to be much more valuable to him than he otherwise comprehends early on.  A pair of cameos by the great Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour as two secluded and aging outlanders that Eli comes across are a hysterical hoot despite the dark secrets and "tastes" that they harbor.  Mila Kunis is fetching and decent as the young woman the befriends Eli, but, as stated, her flawless cover girl luminosity is a bit too fetching and attractive to be taken literally in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  She appears to have ample access and supply of makeup, teeth whitener, and mascara for a woman living in a world decimated by nuclear warheads. 

Oh…yes…then there is that pesky plot twist, which I doubt anyone will legitimately see from any early vantage point in the film.  Normally I am critical of any stunning reveal late in the plot that appears to undermine the whole logic of everything that preceded it.  Yet, it all depends on mindset: from a pragmatic standpoint, it does not hold water, but if you look at it from a spiritual prerogative, it does, in an unusual manner, make sense, but only if you are willing to take a leap of faith.  If you do, then THE BOOK OF ELI is a fiendishly entertaining religious-action-sci-fi thriller, and how many other action-sci-fi thrillers van you name where the main impetus of the hero is the preservation of power and belief in God?  Yes, THE BOOK OF ELI may be the most barbarically gory and violent Christian-centric flick since THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, but at least it offers up compelling layers and insights to its nightmarish, post-apocalyptic milieu beyond the more perfunctory gun battles, car chases, and general human misery that occupies these types of films. 

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