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Entries in Book of Eli/The [2010] (1)

Sunday
Jan242010

The Book of Eli (2010)

The Blessed and the Furious

After having waded through two previous apocalypse movies, The Road and Legion, I went into The Book of Eli with a heavy heart. How many more washed-out, burned-out landscapes, cannibalistic biker cannibals and messages about keeping the fire burning could I stand? It turns out the answer is, “a lot”. This is a really good movie, and I’m glad I caught it in the theatre.

Denzel Washington plays Eli, a wanderer in an America ravaged by a thirty-year-old nuclear holocaust. He’s been charged with delivering the last known copy of the King James Bible to an unspecified destination “out West”, and his journey is fraught with starvation and blood-thirsty marauders; the latter is not that big a deal, since Eli is quite handy with all manner of firearms and his trusty sword, which he uses to hack to pieces anyone who dares not leave him alone. He’s a post-Matrix-era warrior monk, who can quote scripture and lop off hands with equal ease.

The last leg of his quest brings him through a town run by a man called Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Carnegie, as luck would have it, is on a mission to find the Bible so that he can revitalize religion in America—that is to say, using the words to manipulate hope-starved suckers (his words, not mine); once he discovers that Eli has the book, he sets all of his goons after it, and the rest of the movie plays out as a series of chases and showdowns between Carnegie and Eli—and Eli’s step-daughter, Solara (Mila Kunis), who wants to believe in the words Eli has read to her. The Book of Eli takes plenty of cues from the classic Western and infuses the genre with modern warfare and sticky philosophical quandaries.

Is Eli crazy? Or has he really felt the touch of God? The movie gives clues but, in the end, remains fairly agnostic on the issue (that is to say, if you’re pro-religion, you can definitely read into some of the things that happen; if you’re not, some of the explanations—though far-fetched—kind of hold up to scrutiny). The screenplay breaks from the ultra-cool, violent fight scenes to deliver ruminations on faith and human nature from many of the main characters; but this isn’t a platform picture: I never got the feeling that I was being preached to. Some may disagree, but those are likely the same people who bristle at the mention of the word “God” in any context. The ultimate fate of Eli’s book, specifically, the actual place it ends up, is both a chilling and a hopeful image, bringing to mind man’s noble intentions and his ability to royally fuck things up.

The story would probably only be so-so were it not for the wonderful cast. Washington and Oldman are great actors and it’s nice to see them not phone in their performances on what could have been a dusty, talky action picture. Washington in particular really sells Eli’s fatigue and reluctance; he’s a murdering Christ figure, and we get to see the turmoil of that paradox every second he’s on screen. Mila Kunis is serviceable as Solara; I always felt like she was acting—which, to be fair, is inevitable when sharing the screen with seasoned pros. And I’ve got to mention Jennifer Beals as Solara’s mother and Carnegie’s long-suffering blind wife; her performance is remarkable, the stand-out of the film because it was so unexpectedly affecting.

The Book of Eli has received a lot of criticism for the ludicrousness of its premise, its heavy-handed religiosity, and the hypocrisy of its central character. I call foul on all points (my only gripe is that the whole film looks like it was dipped in bleach). This is a thoughtful and exciting film that reminded me a great deal of my go-to apocalypse drama, Children of Men. While there’s a considerable difference in gravitas between the two, they share a refusal to hand the audience all the answers and demand patience and consciousness. In return, both films provide entertainment that one can take home and reflect on, in the presence of or in the absence of faith.