Thirty years after the flash, a man named Eli cuts across the desert — a speck against the sun-bleached horizon. He is dressed in tattered rags and well-worn shoes. Above him, bomb-blasted freeways dead end in piles of rubble and exposed girders. A dying car battery powers the last iPod on Earth, the final notes of music in a world devoid of life or color. In his bag, beside the shotgun and long-blade, is a book. The only book that matters. And in a lawless town of mindless marauders, a civilized man named Carnegie has been searching for that book for a long, long time.
The book, of course, is the Bible — perhaps the last of its kind since the war saw them all hunted down and burned — but in a scorched world of lost souls, such a book would have the power to either liberate or control.
In a strange way, The Book of Eli is really one movie disguised as another, presenting a lyrically filmed story about the importance of religious faith wrapped in the guise of a post-apocalyptic, quasi-western action film. There is a sense as Eli progresses that beyond the awesomely constructed wasteland, the sharply choreographed action sequences and the dynamic performances by Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman, there’s something far deeper and more dramatic passing itself off as popcorn genre entertainment. It’s the very opposite of heavy-handed, subtly layered to be about something, and that’s a rare quality in a film that could deliver just as well on the merits of its action and visuals.
The Hughes brothers return to the big screen to tell the story of one man’s journey of faith, sheparding the Bible across America until chance or divine intervention delivers him to its purpose. That said, Washington’s Eli is still an apocalyptic bad-ass who can easily take down a gang of rapists and thieves with a single blade or win out in a gunfight against 25 fully-loaded shooters. He’s not much of a talker and Washington’s biggest challenge in the role is to maintain a quiet and believable presence throughout. Most of the dialogue belongs to Oldman as the black-hatted Carnegie, delivering a well-balanced performance that’s consistently engaging without ever spilling into the overly eccentric territory that Oldman has been known to explore. In many ways, Carnegie is a more complex character than Eli, played with occasional notes of sympathy and suggesting a past that might render him more than just a one-note villain.
Washington, however, plays many of his later scenes against Solara, the daughter of Carnegie’s mistress, played here by Mila Kunis in the film’s least effective performance. Kunis plays the role of Eli’s companion in the most straightforward fashion possible, never suggesting any real depth or emotional connection beyond what’s scripted on the page. She’s hardly bad in the role so much as she’s mechanical, serving the story in such a way that never pulls you out, but quite never invites you into the material. The deficiency isn’t tremendously noticeable until the closing moments when the character’s fate is finally revealed and the audience discovers that they simply don’t care. Thankfully, Washington is around to help elevate each sequence and does so with his typical bravado.
The performances are also informed by the wonderfully visual world that the Hughes brothers have created. The Book of Eli is a painterly film, crafted with style and nuance as opposed to more grounded, realistic depictions of the Apocalypse as seen in The Road. The action is fast and the camera moves — the shots — are meticulously framed. One pivotal shoot-out finds the camera floating into and through the ruins of a bullet-ridden house in a singular movement, illustrating the brothers’ distinct style and penchant for visual flare. But Gary Whitta’s script — with some help from Anthony Peckham — offers the pair a strong balance of action and substance, as does the very premise of the film itself.
Make no mistake, however, The Book of Eli is a film about religion. Or at the very least, faith. One gets the sense from various cultural references scattered throughout the movie that the filmmakers hope that viewers of any belief system might be able to make the mental switch from the Bible, to the Koran, to the Torah… That Eli isn’t carrying the Bible so much as he’s carrying a representation of the very notion of faith itself. But the fact that the set-up demands that the story choose one particular book will no doubt make the film feel very Christian to many audiences. While one gets the impression that other Eli’s may exist within this world, carrying the sacred texts of any number of religions, it’s never communicated quite so clearly as to satisfy those who are likely, perhaps fairly, to inquire, “Why is it only the Christian God who speaks to the post-apocalyptic world?”
With all that in mind, Eli is a surprisingly moving film. The action and the visuals are superbly entertaining, but there are several moments, however stylized, when the more philosophical subtext rises to the surface and elicits an actual emotion out of the audience. Sophisticated, exciting and particularly well-crafted, The Book of Eli is worth a read, cover to cover.