The Book of Eli
Directed by The Hughes Brothers
The Book of Eli is the Hughes Brothers' first feature film since 2001's From Hell. They haven't lost their touch.
The time isn't specified, but it's safe to say The Book of Eli takes place roughly 30 years in the future, say 2040. War has devastated the planet, or at least the United States. It's a dreary, burnt out environment in which interiors contain more color than the flash-blasted exteriors.
None of that is particularly groundbreaking. It's the setting for just about every post-apocalyptic nightmare, whether it's Resident Evil: Extinction or I Am Legend. But this is a Hughes Brothers movie and they know where they're going.
As for Eli (Denzel Washington, Inside Man), he's a survivor. He wields a blade with such savage grace, he can tangle with any number of opponents and still be the last man standing. And he's on a mission to walk across the country to deliver a book that a voice has told him will be appreciated by those living out on the west coast.
In need of water and a battery recharge (so he can reboot his iPod and listen to more Al Green and Johnny Cash), Eli makes a pit stop in a leftover pocket of civilization and trades in a cigarette lighter and a few fast-food-chain handy wipes. Unfortunately for Eli, he runs into a wing nut named Carnegie (Gary Oldman, The Dark Knight), who just so happens to be obsessed with finding the very same book Eli's toting around. It's the last known copy; all the others were burned after the war.
What Eli sees as a book of human salvation, Carnegie sees as a weapon to control the hearts and minds of the weak. What that book is isn't the movie's big surprise, but in order to remain spoiler-free, it won't be identified here. Adding to the intrigue, though, are a couple interesting climactic spins on that book.
And that climax is oddly suspenseful, with the Hughes Brothers creating an incredible amount of tension around the opening of the book. It's a good piece of storytelling, one written by first-timer Gary Whitta, formerly the editor of a videogame magazine.
Perhaps that background served Whitta well in creating a screenplay that, on the surface, satisfies post-apocalyptic gore fans. As mentioned already, Eli dispatches people to their maker with aplomb; heads roll, arms sever, blood flows. And the Hughes Brothers are game to film it all with their own panache that calls to mind the sensibilities of both a graphic novel and a videogame. At one point there's even a chainsaw attacker reminiscent of the Resident Evil games.
But the gore and the violence are merely a layer of smoke that begins to dissipate as the course of the story becomes clearer. There's serious food for thought to be had here. Chief among the ideas bouncing around: To what extent do culture and religion justify violence?
Grace: Eli (Denzel Washington) and Solara (Mila Kunis)
Photo: Warner Bros.
As the mystery of the book unfolds, thematic elements such as the impact of religion and culture on society come to the fore. And, of course, those people 30 years out scramble madly to collect and horde resources and niceties that are so disposable to today's civilians. The value of human life is also complicated by the fact that killing a person can supply desperately needed meat for others. Certainly those themes, in and of themselves, are also nothing new to the post-apocalypse genre, but the overall effect of the storytelling, the characters, and the presentation weaves together for an above-average movie-going experience.
Denzel Washington, the son of a Pentecostal minister, fills the role of Eli perfectly – and he wears his 55 years well. Of course, nobody does a creepy Gary Oldman character better than Gary Oldman and he flies his creep flag high as the ruthless Carnegie.
As for that climactic book opening, it doesn't quite qualify as a true Twilight Zone-style shocker. But the surprising revelations make for a great conclusion, albeit one that includes a wee bit of cheating that's still too good to dismiss offhand. How it all is read, what it all means, is left open to interpretation, just like the book that surrounds all the intrigue.
All of the film's contradictions and open-ended ideas are summed up in one little shot near the movie's end. It's of a book being put on a shelf. Read the spine and consider the contrasting tone of the book's title and the book's printer.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.