REVIEW: The Book of Eli [2010]

“Stay on the path; it’s not your concern”

Sometimes promotional material lets on to the truth. By watching the trailers for The Book of Eli, I became excited to see the film due to its stripped color palette, post-apocalyptic environment, and Denzel Washington’s insane fighting skills. For some reason, though, all those posters saying “Deliver Us” and the fact of it all centering on a book that’s more important than anything else left on earth—a weapon even—eluded me in realizing just how large religion would loom over everything. The Hughes Brothers could have easily made this into a straight-up action flick, and I was actually kind of expecting it, but thankfully they took care with Gary Whitta’s script and delivered a tale much deeper and spiritually powerful than I ever would have guessed.

Faith is a part of humanity; whether cherished and held close or forsaken completely, it still plays an integral role on how we live our lives. When the majority of the population has no knowledge of God and survival itself, soaked in blood, is the only thing binding them together, faith becomes replaced by acquiescence. The strong, in this case synonymous with a lack of morals or appreciation for the human soul, prey upon the weak and rule with an iron fist of fear. Gary Oldman is the tyrant of this story, building a civilization supported by complacency. His miscreants run wild, their free reign of booze and women in exchange for their search of the book that will allow him to take over the world. This book could give him the words to lead without violence, to become their savior—not because of compassion, but instead so he can be both King and God himself, ruler of all that’s been left since the sun burned the world to dust. After thirty years of waiting, thirty years of killing and suffering, the one man in possession of this power has arrived.

The film itself leans heavily on the metaphor of Washington’s Eli being a prophet entrusted with the protection of religion itself. His words and prayers are heard for the first time by those around him, brightening eyes and minds instantly, their power steadfast and quick. All he would have to do is spout a few verses to usurp any control Oldman’s Carnegie has on the people, or anyone anywhere for that matter. He is Moses coming down the mountain with the word of God at his disposal, yet he refuses because it is not his mission. He is a guardian—not an orator—wandering west in order to find a place this book can reside to do some good. It is the most powerful weapon for sure, just words on paper that can unite or control by planting the seed of belief and faith. So strong, in fact, that Eli can’t let anyone else even touch the book in his possession, he won’t even read from it, instead reciting from memory. It has a hold over him, protecting his safety as a necessity for its own, walking blindly through faith that his path ends in salvation. Whereas Carengie would use it to brainwash and exploit the people, something churches all over the world are known for at the present, (possibly that allusion spoken about how the book caused the war that tore open the sky is more truthful than not), Eli uses it to survive, knowing how many it will save in the future.

There are many influences besides the religious overtones at work, though. The Hughes Brothers have crafted it more as a western that anything else with its distinct delineations of good vs. evil. The Orpheum across from Tom Waits’s store, (oh how I love seeing him in two films within a one week period, Imaginarium being the other), is a wild west saloon with its soot-covered, goggle-wearing cowboys drinking away their indifference. The world is a dust bowl ghost town devoid of law; it’s survival of the fittest and bartering is key. Who knew a few wetnaps from KFC could be worth more than gold? But the directors don’t stop there, infusing some brilliantly choreographed action sequences. Taking a page out of Children of Men, there are a couple fight scenes that appear to be seamlessly shot in one take. The camera flies through exploding debris and doubles back by breaching holes and shooting under burning wreckage, at one point even coming face-to-face with a Gatling gun’s fiery barrels. The monotone gray filter thrown on top of everything is effective too, the dirt and grime authentic, and the destroyed buildings and towns realistic. I only had one problem visually and it’s the plethora of blatant product placement. With so much nondescript and covered, the ‘conveniently’ noticeable logos of Coffee Beanery and J. Crew stick out like sore thumbs. And I don’t think they could have lingered on that Motorola megaphone any longer without making it a Super Bowl spot.

However, a cool world made up of appropriated technologies, mish-mashed into a brand new style of necessity, can only get you so far without feeling hollow. It becomes the performances that flesh out these exteriors and draw the audience in deeper, holding on tight. Oldman seems at his best when playing smarmy despots that will do anything for control, so his role is pretty much par for the course. What impressed me was the work by the others, not quite branching away from the norm, but still bringing a little something fresh and effective to the proceedings. Ray Stevenson is channeling his Punisher for the most part, but the moments of heart that show through, a code of honor that has been buried too long, were surprising. One instance after a shoot out, he and Denzel peer across the road at one another and you can see the understanding between them, a sort of mutual appreciation between warriors. And you don’t understand how refreshing it is to see Washington old and grizzled. The man we know and love is there, but he has this added character and weathered self-worth that’s usually glossed over by his charismatic smile. It only helps in his role of prophet, walking the land with purpose, not a shred of ego to be seen. Throw in effective turns by Mila Kunis, Jennifer Beals, and a fun Michael Gambon and the ensemble is complete.

It is unfortunately tough to really delve into the religious backbone without ruining things, so just know that it does drive the entire story. I could have done without the convention of needing Kunis as an apprentice of sorts, because that job isn’t really necessary if Eli succeeds in his mission, but Americans do like there little ‘hell-yeah’ moments and the Hughes include one at the end here. I just hope no idiotic Hollywood producer thinks it opens up the possibility for a sequel because that would be a travesty. The Book of Eli is not wall to wall action so don’t get discouraged about the lulls telling an actual story. Whitta has crafted a competent screenplay here with many allusions to Catholicism and really all faith-based religions, still finding a way to throw in some twists and turns to make the message of mankind’s salvation cinematically exciting. “… I was once blind and … now I can see”—this book has the power to make it happen with all of the survivors, opening their eyes to a future of promise. The human spirit will never die; it just sometimes needs meaning and purpose to prevail.

The Book of Eli 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] DENZEL WASHINGTON (left) as Eli, GARY OLDMAN (right center) as Carnegie and RAY STEVENSON (background) as Redridge in Alcon Entertainment’s action adventure film “The Book of Eli,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[2] MILA KUNIS (right) as Solara, DENZEL WASHINGTON (center) as Eli and MICHAEL GAMBON (background) as George in Alcon Entertainment’s action adventure film “The Book of Eli,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures


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