The Book of Eli reminds me of a funeral sermon delivered by a priest too young to be confident to go off the good book. As he quotes scripture, he’ll find himself wandering and relating personal anecdotes, which are amusing and touching and make the parishoners chuckle. Uncomfortable, the priest will get deadly serious and lunge back into the stolid recital of the Bible verses as writ, forgetting that it’s the personal word that makes us believe and heal. The Hughes Brothers have never found a comfort zone with their projects — creating something that’s always stylistic and entertaining at moments, but then getting mired in a message. It’s a thoughtful and interesting script by Gary Whitta, and it benefits from the Hughes Brothers’ careful consideration for detail, but it’s bogged down by too much heavy-handed preaching. It was easier to believe in the good book when we weren’t being beaten in the face with it.
Eli (Denzel Washington) is a walker, traveling across a dystopian wasteland in the aftermath of what seems to be a nuclear disaster (referred to in passing as The Flash). While some critics have been comparing the film to The Road — which is fair considering the washed-out look and winks to modern conveniences like KFC handiwipes and iPods — it’s actually a bit more like the early books of The Dark Tower — particularly The Gunslinger. Eli is on a quest, a devout mission to transport a holy book to the West. When men try to stop him, he cuts them down with furious vengeance. But he won’t involve himself in other people’s problems. He witnesses two innocents get murdered and raped by bikers and hides, intoning that he must stay on the path. It reminded me of Roland’s mad devotion to the Tower, to the sacrifice of those he holds dear. Voices have told Eli that he must bring the book West.
His journey takes him through a frontier town run by a sinister robber-baron named Carnegie (Gary Oldman). He’s also on a quest — to find a book that has the power to gain him followers and make him more powerful. When Eli cuts down some of his men, Carnegie persuades him to stay, offering him the companionship of his, for lack of a better term, step-daughter Solara (Mila Kunis). Carnegie’s a strange zealot, a man who runs the town because he knows where to find water. He dotes on Solara’s mother, a blind woman named Claudia (Jennifer Beals). He’s just as obsessive as Eli, only foaming at the mouth with intensity, whereas Eli’s devotion is more of a focused and passioned energy. The book protects Eli, and Carnegie wants that power.
It’s a very simple story from there on out. It becomes a battle, both of wills and weapons, between Carnegie and his thugs and Eli, who’s teamed inexplicably with Solara. The dystopia follows the current trend of Thunderdome, as sponsored by Target and Wal-Mart. Cannibalism, sunstroke, and thirst are the great dangers besides the outlanders lurking in the desert surrounding the cities. Whitta and the Hughes Brothers do a terrific job establishing the import of simple commodity where chapstick and a good pair of boots are the new Mastercard. They get tons of mileage out of Tom Waits as a shopkeep/engineer, a squirrelly character dealing in used goods. With such a fully realized world and such a commitment to the washed-out look and feel, it’s a shame the story feels so divisive.
When Denzel becomes Old Testament Denzel — doling out an eye for an eye with a machete and bow and arrow — the film shines. The fight scenes are terrific, extremely stylish violence with blades flying and limbs and heads hurling everywhere. Later in the movie, we’re introduced to two Harry Potter alumni, Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour (Dumbledore and Madame Maxime, respectively), who play a batshit couple named George and Martha. The showdown at their homestead is probably one of the finest sequences in the film, an almost video-game level of warfare and bravado that mixes clever camera placement with an ability to underplay pathos for wild abandon. I’m not suggesting the entire film needed to be Doomsday — even with the inclusion of Malcolm Macdowell — but it could have benefited from a little more sword and a little less word.
The acting’s decent for the most part, but it’s a strange yet talented cast assembled. None of these particular actors seem to have a grasp on what they want to do when they act up. Denzel Washington hasn’t been sure whether to kick ass or give speeches, and he’s been trying to do both for many winters. I miss the Denzel of Virtuousity and Ricochet, and was kind of expecting to see him here. Mila Kunis had a hard character to work with, a whiny tag-a-long, but she managed to nut up when necessary. I still can’t buy her as a gun-toting badass, but she’s not terrible. I don’t know where the fuck Gary Oldman went off the rails, but I long for the day when he finds his way back. He was there with Sirius Black, but then there was The Unborn and….ugh. In this, he’s doing his best impression of Daniel Day-Lewis’s uncle, and he’s Gary Oldman and so it works. In fact, the only reason Carnegie worked as a villain at all was because it was Gary Oldman. But that’s only going to work for so much longer. Ray Stevenson and Jennifer Beals both had small, underused roles, but they really did smashing jobs with them.
Religion is a tricky topic to fit into any film comfortably, let alone an action drama, and for that the Hughes Brothers did admirably. The power of faith, the intensity of belief, the ability of religion to draw people together and strengthen them — it was all handled well. Religion can be a crutch, but that just means it can be there to help people who are wounded to heal and get stronger. And the Hughes Brothers had me. At first. They had created a blissful metaphor. Then they explained the metaphor. And then the metaphor became the message of the movie. It’s like saying life is like a box of chocolates, and then explaining each individual candy flavor in the Whitman’s sampler in great detail as independent occurrances in life. We get it, we get it. Give us a fucking break.
The Book of Eli is only the fifth film from the Hughes Brothers, and their first in almost nine years. I sincerely hope they figure out a way to keep the fun while lightening up the heavy-handed messaging. They paired up with Joel Silver on this flick, and Silver might just be the man to steer them into the carnival. Overall, The Book of Eli was a decent flick, and certainly a welcome addition to the whole apocalypse/dystopian future canon. I just wish Denzel Washington had spent less time beating the audience over the head with the good book and more time beating in the heads of toothless goons in dusty tatters.