[14 January 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
They say that God works in mysterious ways. Sometimes, however, he’s as straightforward and obvious as they come. In the new post-apocalyptic thriller The Book of Eli, Denzel Washington plays the title character, a man traveling a scorched and desolate Earth. For almost thirty years he has toiled under the burden of a divine missive - take an untitled tome and deliver it West. Along the way, he runs into the dregs of remaining humanity - highway thugs who rob and murder, cannibals who feast on the flesh of humans for food. Somewhere deep in the middle of America, the despot (Gary Oldman) of a decaying ghost town wants the manuscript Eli is carrying. If it’s what he thinks it is, it will provide all the power he needs to rule the world.
This is not The Road, however. Life as we know it may be circumvented for various acts of debauchery or evil, but there is hope on the horizon. Though he’s desperate for the sway said book holds over people, Oldman’s Carnegie just wants to bring the planet back -with him in charge, of course. His microcosm of thieves and killers might be wicked, but in his mind, it’s a way back from the madness the Final War has wrought. Thus the Hughes Brothers, filmmakers famous for such unusual fare as Menace II Society, Dead Presidents, and From Hell, have their own religious allegory to contemplate - the sacred vs. the profane, the solely secular vs. the undeniably holy. Set against an enigmatic and atmospheric backdrop, the duo avoids the standard sci-fi trappings to forge something meaningful and memorable.
At first, we think we’ve figured Washington out. He’s the typical loner, the Mad Max of this new scorched Earth order, the sole voice of reason above a din of inequity and animalistic instinct. He’s part monk, part martial arts bad-ass, someone capable of single handedly wiping out an entire gang of hooligans while remaining virtuous and sanctified. He seems chosen, lifted above the rest of the rabble as he moves along with razor sharp focus. Of course, he is given a temptation along the way - the teenage daughter of Oldman’s gal pal. Played by Mila Kunis, she is the unformed clay, the child who’s never known another world. She’s never known grass, or culture, or civilization. Now, not only does Eli have to save the planet, he has to save her soul as well.
The directors definitely have their work cut out for them. Not only does Cormac McCarthy carry a Pulitzer (and even more impressive, an Oprah stamp of approval) for his similarly themed look at existence after Armageddon, but they are battling against the cinema’s standard intolerance toward religion and faith as well. The pious usually don’t play well inside the motion picture barricade. They are often the butt of jokes, or viciously intolerant. Worse, they will sometime be the most corrupt of a conceit overflowing with fraud. But in The Book of Eli, our hero is truly noble. Sure, he handles a sword with lethal blood flowing agility, but he is merely protecting his promise. Even when faced with insurmountably odd, Eli can weather a storm - fire or otherwise.
With their dry, desaturated color scheme and future shock art design, the Hugheses manufacture a realm that’s reminiscent of the Old West. Indeed, the populace all live by the gun, the almighty weapon, the fear they create, and the slimmest margin of order they maintain. The America of The Book of Eli is all dust and waste. There are usual elements everywhere - some people have even managed to survive within the maelstrom of death and destruction. But this is not necessarily a question of fitness or power. The Book of Eli seems to suggest that, when the End comes, the planet will be divided into the capable and the criminal. Who ends up in control clearly comes from what our hero is carrying in his knapsack.
Of course, the twist is being played up by the publicity, the “what” of Eli’s mission more important that the “why”. Unfortunately, that’s not really fair. Sure, there is something satisfactory about the reveal, an obviousness thwarted by a clever last minute manipulation. But the motivation behind the quest is far more important than the talisman carried. Washington is the perfect actor to house such secret intentions. He carries a world-weary wisdom on his face, a knowledge mixed with a no nonsense desire to protect his purpose no matter what. Oldman makes a capable rival as well. Avoiding the histrionics one could easily associate with the role, he seems authentic in his megalomania. As the only real women in the piece, Kunis and co-star Jennifer Beals are beauty and bravery…and that’s about it.
This is really the Hugheses show and they deliver when it counts. This is a tense, moody exercise, the kind of film that crawls under your skin and strains to outlast your lingering doubts. The visual element is matched magnificently by the ideas involved, and both swirl around in your head like an intoxicating, poisonous brew. There’s not much action here, but what exists is straight out of the Shaw Brothers’ school of one man vs. many attacks. Instead, the Hugheses want to instill a sense of wonder, to make the various details bristling along the edges as important and insightful as what Eli and Carnegie are trying to do.
Perhaps the best thing about The Book of Eli though is its throwback mentality. This is a movie reminiscent of the way science fiction used to be, before the days of interstellar dogfights and galaxy wide war. One could easily see a grizzled and suntanned Charleton Heston roaming these deserted highways, face covered to avoid the ever-present fallout but eyes piercing the next point of contact. Unlike other attempts at showcasing how rationality is restored in a society destroyed by chaos (say, The Postman), The Book of Eli never loses sight of its strategy. This is not some veiled star vehicle for an A-list ego to traverse. This is a real movie with real meaning. Some will miss the message and that’s perfectly acceptable. As long as we believe in Eli, and he believes in his quest, said faith will take us, and this movie, far indeed. Problem is, we might not like where it leads, or what it says about us as it does.