The Book of Eli (2010) / Sci Fi-Western
MPAA Rated: R for some brutal violence and language
Running time: 118 min.
Cast: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Jennifer Beals, Ray Stevenson, Evan Jones, Joe Pingue, Michael Gambon, Tom Waits, Malcolm McDowell
Director: The Hughes Brothers
Screenplay: Gary Whitta
Review published June 18, 2011
Combine the post-apocalyptic world of The Road Warrior and your typical Clint Eastwood Western, a la High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider, and you pretty much have most of what The Book of Eli covered. Directed with style by Allen and Albert Hughes (From Hell, American Pimp), their first in nearly a decade, the film casts Denzel Washington (The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, The Great Debaters) as the titular Eli, an American drifter heading west through the desert lands of the Southwestern U.S. carrying a mysterious book he feels is his destiny to deliver. Trouble brews at every turn in this lawless area 30 years after it has become a nuclear wasteland, but none of it is his primary concern -- his mission comes first.
But there's someone else looking for this book that may be the last in its existence, an educated thug named Carnegie (Oldman, A Christmas Carol), who has sent out bands of illiterate bandits for years scouring the lands for books in the hope that they find a copy of the elusive text, as he knows it will bring him great power to influence the masses. When Eli and Carnegie cross paths, the spirituality and literacy of Eli, as well as his adept survival skills, raises the red flag that he might be able to recognize, if not outright know of the whereabouts of such a book, and the deadly test of wills begins.
The nature of the book in question isn't difficult to figure out, and hints are dropped early enough to leave little doubt as to what it is before it is ultimately revealed. But it isn't for the mystery that The Book of Eli succeeds in its entertainment value enough to garner a recommendation, it's for the style, the pacing, and for the good characterization by Denzel Washington at the heart of the film. Perhaps the film could have been more than passable fare if it had more of a sense of mystique, as Eastwood had given his characters in his aforementioned films, but even when it is obvious where the script by Gary Whitta is going, it is always interesting.
It is only as revelations come to the forefront in the climax and epilogue to the film that it begins to sag from the weight of its somewhat pompous storytelling, but little touches throughout make up for a lot. When you see packages of moist towelettes (presumably from KFC) being used as to barter with, you know there is at least some thought underneath the standard drifter storyline.
Action, adventure, drama, science fiction, western, and road trip movie, this cross genre excursion may have a somewhat silly premise (some may be turned off by the perceived Christian propagandizing) in the end, but it does feel weighty as it plays, thanks in large part to Washington's gravitas in what isn't exactly written as a meaty role. It's his presence that anchors the importance of his quest, and though it won't go down as one of his best roles, he carries us through the story as hero with a good bit of nuance. The Hughes Brothers also find interesting ways to shoot the film, relying on long takes, some shot in a single take, and a plethora (perhaps too many) of slow motion shots. In one notable sequence, the camera weaves in and out of the window of a house to show the heroes inside and the heavies on the outside, and their subsequent shootout. They make what could have been a stale story feel fresh and innovative.
The Book of Eli contains some interesting ideas, such as the importance of literacy, the fragility of knowledge, and the worth of age and experience. When a major global catastrophe strikes, it is only those things, those people, those experiences that were there prior to that which changed everything that people can cling to to try to make sense of the current situation, and the hope to rebuild. Beyond this, it is about the power of belief, the strength of faith, and a parable of the world where science has won by defeating us all, creating a lawless, Godless, and, ironically, ignorant society eager to embrace the older beliefs in existence before science came along and ended the world as we know it.
©2011 Vince Leo