'Book of Eli' is Fascinating, Faith-Based Vision

The Book of Eli

Director: Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes
Cast: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Frances de la Tour, Michael Gambon
Rated: R
Studio: Warner Brothers
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-01-15 (General release)
UK date: 2010-01-15 (General release)

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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.