Brandon's Word: The Book of Eli is Stylish, But Also Slight
by Brandon Lee Tenney
January 15, 2010
There's a line of dialogue in The Book of Eli that encapsulates the entire film's thesis: "I got so caught up in keeping it safe that I forgot to live by what I'd learned from it." In this quote is the whole of the film. Its themes, its commentary, its action, its characters. By no means is this intended to be a slight. In fact, I commend screenwriter Gary Whitta for being able to distill his film into so clear an elixir. And if there's one word that's most able to describe The Book of Eli, I'd say that word is clear. The action is clear. The story is clear. The characters are (too) clear. And, yet, it's not.
From the film's first frame, it's plain to see that the Brothers Hughes, Albert and Allen, are confident, stylish directors. The Book of Eli's tone is a singular force to behold. Its scope is epic. For one's eyes, it's a treat. Their camera moves and Don Burgess's cinematography are slick; their sets and costumes are welcome homages to post-apocalyptic films and westerns previous; and Atticus Ross's score is downright entrancing. The Hughes Brothers surrounded themselves with some of the best in order to realize their singular vision. And at that, they certainly succeed.
It's easy to get lost in the lush landscape of the film's barren wasteland. It's the kind of place that's presented so beautifully, so cooly, that even though water is scarce and your next pair of shoes will likely come from the feet of a dead man -- if they come at all -- you want to be a part of it. To live it, not unlike the gunslinging spaghetti westerns or sci-fi space operas that while logically perilous invite one in so completely that it's easy to dismiss the trouble those worlds inherently present.
The above and the film's subject matter are the most obvious reasons a comparison to John Hillcoat's The Road is in order. Where The Road forces its audience to feel, to experience the harsh realities of life after its end, The Book of Eli merely shows you those obstacles. Unfortunately, they're rarely felt. Is this mainstream-Hollywood's version of The Road? In many ways, yes. In one very important way, no.
At the film's onset, we're introduced to Denzel Washington, who we later learn is named Eli. Eli is a walker. For thirty-some years, he's been traveling the desolate landscape, following the roads when he has to, venturing off them when he must. We're never explicitly told how our modern world collapsed, but we are told it was our doing. A hole in the sky that's our fault, allowing the sun to burn away most of the human race and much of that living with it.
During more certain times, World War II, the Cold War, there was always a pointed finger that would lead directly to the cause of catastrophe. If not the Nazis then the Japanese during the former, if not Russia then Cuba during the latter. However, today, in these very uncertain times, every pointed finger is pointing in a different direction. Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, Yemen, the environment, the right, the left, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, the banks, Christians, Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, fundamentalists, hippies, ourselves. It's no wonder that our post-apocalyptic entertainment is reflective of this. It's impossible to give an answer because there are so many answers to the question of how the world will end.
And for Eli, it doesn't matter. Having lived to see one generation post-apocalypse, he's skilled at living in this environment no matter the cause. His world is uncompromisingly violent. It's harsh. Yet he's somehow able to keep on the pounds, displaying an anachronistic belly. On the road he's also picked up the ability to fight with such adeptness that during any confrontation after the film's first, all tension is lost. However, and as I said above, the Hughes Brothers make each fight so visually exciting that that barely matters. Barely, though, is not the same as doesn't.
Throughout the film I was left wanting to, at any point, connect with Eli instead of just connecting with Denzel Washington. Washington is such a presence on screen that I often have difficultly separating him, the actor, from his character. His performance in Training Day is one of the few exceptions to my rule. In The Book of Eli he's quite good. Unfortunately, his character is so righteous, so pure that even though it's Eli on the screen, it's Denzel that I'm feeling. Mila Kunis also suffers from the lack of much characterization. She plays her part well, it's just that her part is about as cliche as a sidekick can get. And, like Eli's belly, she looks as beautiful as ever. The post-apocalypse has been good to her.
There are some fantastic performances aside from the film's two leads, though. Gary Oldman, who plays the sinister, yet human Carnegie, is very strong. In fact, I'd have much rather the film been his to star in. A film from his character's perspective. He and his counterparts are always the most interesting. One of those counterparts is played by Ray Stevenson who displays his best brutish charm while Jennifer Beals, Oldman's blind slave/girlfriend steals every scene she's in with magnificent grace. And, as usual, Tom Waits and Michael Gambon are great.
So far, I feel as though I've been tip-toeing around how I actually feel about the film as a whole. That's because I am, I suppose. And aside from the often cliche characterizations, it's because the story itself is at once completely in my wheelhouse and immediately off-putting. The film's main thread is directly tied to religion; how it's effected the world at large and our characters at present. That religion, of course, is Christianity.
As the denouement of the civilization-ending war, we're told that all religious texts were hunted and burned. Eradicated due to their ability to control those faithful to them. It's this control that Carnegie seeks. It's this control that Eli must protect. I very much like the commentary on the destructive realities of fundamentalism presented by this binary. The power of religion and its capacity to do great harm in the name of great good has always fascinated me. Though, it's the flip side that both turned me off and confused me plenty. Because Eli is this power's protector, it, in turn, protects him. Now, while it can be read that Eli merely believes he is under its protection, one particular scene in the film skews its bias toward a more literal, God-like protection. This may have simply been a red herring since the film relies so heavily on its ending, but it muddled the purpose and was, in my opinion, unnecessary.
There are interesting themes at work in The Book of Eli. Timely themes, too. Greed, selfishness, and overuse are hinted at along with religion's -- expressly, Christianity's -- ability to teach great good while also leading to horrible atrocities. However, these themes are hidden beneath a shellack of style and action, fun to look at and watch though they are. But it's most probably the film's ending that will have audiences buzzing as they exit the theatre. You'll not receive any hints from me here. But, for all intents and purposes, it's a good one. And, more impressively, one that I didn't see coming. One that makes me want to watch the film a second time.
Remove the stylish vision, well-crafted direction, and the film's ending, and I probably wouldn't have looked too favorably upon The Book of Eli. Its parts are simply greater than its sum. However, because it does have those three elements in spades, I can confidently recommend you see it for yourself. Just make sure to steer clear of any and all spoilers until you do. And bring some wet-naps to trade. They're worth more than the US dollar, that's for sure.
Brandon's Rating: 6.5 out of 10