Movie Review: The Book of Eli (2010)
It goes without saying that the book at the center of The Book of Eli is the Bible. In the aftermath of a barely described nuclear holy war, every copy of the Bible has been destroyed save one, which is in the possession of Eli (Denzel Washington), a solitary wandering monk type who knows knives, guns, and good music on top of his considerable knowledge of scripture. The land is not kind, yielding little more than the occasional stray cat to eat. As is becoming more and more common in the post-apocalyptic genre, plenty of humans have done one of two things: Hung themselves in a room for the hero to discover, or turned to cannibalism, allowing the hero to butcher them, qualm-free.
Eli gets both of those things out of the way quickly, first by slaughtering a crew of cannibals who want what’s in his backpack, then by taking the shoes off of a hanging corpse in an abandoned house. The early scene in said abandoned house is a standout. Using his small supply of wet towelettes from KFC, Eli bathes himself while listening to Al Green on a first generation iPod. He looks old and weary. His body is covered with burns. He eats his cat meat alone, preparing for another long day of walking. Like most warrior monks, he wants to do it alone. He does two things with the people who intrude on his path: Kills them, or abandons them. His Bible must go west.
Hoping to recharge his iPod, Eli stumbles into a ramshackle, rusted-out version of every Old West town you’ve ever seen. The town is run by a despotic old white guy with a rich old white guy’s name. You know that Carnegie (Gary Oldman) is despotic and thus the bad guy because he is first shown reading a biography of Mussolini. You know he’s crazy because he wants the Bible, believing that it’s the key to building more rustic towns inspired by the Old West. He believes that people will do whatever he says, so long as it’s in a book that nobody but him can read. Reading is power, after all.
Eli gets into an altercation with a yokel at Carnegie’s bar. This leads to a meeting between Eli and Carnegie, which leads to Eli spending the night, which leads to Eli meeting Solara (Mila Kunis), who is an unwilling prostitute in Carnegie’s employ. She sees Eli’s book. She tells Carnegie that Eli has the book. When Eli refuses to give the book up, a shootout ensues. When that doesn’t kill Eli (but leaves a number of Carnegie’s men dead), a posse is rounded up, loaded into heavily fortified GMCs and sent west in pursuit of Eli. From here, you can guess the following:
- That the unexpected follower does the unexpected and follows Eli
- What Eli’s initial reaction to said follower is.
- What ghastly attempted act upon the follower brings the two together.
- Why those nice old people who live out in the wasteland have a trap door, a graveyard, and a substantial store of fresh meat.
- Where the last bastion of humanity is located. (Hint: It’s as ironic as it is iconic.)
- Whether or not Eli’s mission is divinely purposed.
- Whether or not Carnigie is right about the Bible.
You can guess at all of that correctly without stumbling upon the film’s GOTCHA revelation, which I won’t spoil. As far as the movie’s religious bent goes, I suppose it just depends on your disposition. As an apostate, I was pretty much gagging on the scene where Eli taught Solara how to pray. She can’t read, the Bible doesn’t exist and she’s never heard of God, but Eli, in the span of about three minutes, makes her pray, thus converting her. The next day, she leads her mom in prayer, which is as necessary to the plot as it is unbelievable. I just can’t imagine belief as a switch waiting to be turned on by some guy who grabs your hands and tells you to close your eyes—conversion experiences in the Bible were more hard won than they are here. And because the Hughes Brothers are in such a hurry to get to the next thing, they forget that it ever happened, a decision that works to undermine the whole “Religion is Power/Belief is Hope” thing and lets Solara down as a character. She’s painfully one note before and after that scene, resigned to her status as the movie’s second most important prop.
All in all, the movie’s predictability and unwillingness to go any deeper than the surface of any of its questions doesn’t really take away from the fact that this is a solid, if unspectacular, action piece. Both major shootouts, in the town and at that lonely house, are very well-constructed. Action movie rules are disobeyed in both, which is nice, and the conclusion is not a hailstorm of bullets, which is different. Everything looks bleak and sunburned, yet somehow obviously purposed–an amusement park version of The Road. The performances, particularly Washington’s, Oldman’s, and Tom Waits’ (the engineer who charges Eli’s iPod) are fine, if not particularly nuanced. The problem is that the Hughes Brothers have no sense of pacing and decide that they don’t actually need a proper resolution.
The film actually takes great pains in letting you know that, in the end, nothing was really at stake beyond Carnagie’s pride—he and his crew of generic henchmen could have expanded their franchise of Rock Ridges without the good book—which means that things just kind of happen without cause. The movie goes on without a center, picking up hitchhiking plot elements without intending to properly resolve any of them. And when Solara wanders out on her own with Eli’s iPod and machete, I can’t tell if it’s sequel bait or the screenwriter forgetting that she was utterly useless unless something she had to say was absolutely necessary to advance the plot. And it all goes by so fast! Since when can’t we stop and appreciate the apocalypse?
The Book of Eli. Directed by The Hughes Brothers. With Denzel Washington (Eli), Gary Oldman (Carnegie), Mila Kunis (Solara), Ray Stevenson (Redridge), Jennifer Beals (Claudia), Tom Waits (Engineer), and Michael Gambon (George). Released January 15, 2010, by Warner Bros.
Paul Arrand Rodgers
Paul Arrand Rodgers has this blog, and that's about it.