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
Reader Feedback - 29 Comments
I hate people whos job it is to criticize other people but they never make anything themselves. Its like telling people they did a shitty job without ever experiencing how to actually create something yourself. Its a losers job..
jaja on Jan 15, 2010
@#1 You just described yourself, he reviewed the movie because its his job, your bitching because your just some prick who is on the internet. He can give his opinion because obviously people want to hear it enough that he has a part in a legitimate website. Your the loser. He's probably getting money off of you viewing the site and leaving your shitty comment.
exrayne on Jan 15, 2010
@2 AMEN BROTHA!
hutch on Jan 15, 2010
... i liked it pretty basic but a decent movie non the less. lots of decapitation that's always good to see
DoomCanoe on Jan 15, 2010
Got in to see it last night and while it's not all that bad, it's nothing sepecial either. What is it with Denzel Washington? He just can't seem to get away from mediocre movies. Maybe he needs a new agent or something. I like the guy and keep hoping for that big movie but it never seems to happen.
Hattori Hanzo on Jan 15, 2010
this movie was amazing. 6.5? Come on, at least an 8.
Larry David on Jan 15, 2010
I'll bet #1feels like a complete dumb-ass! ha ha ha 🙂 Way to go #2
indyjack on Jan 15, 2010
Saw it last night and liked it quite a bit. Not going to be for everyone, but the type of style the Brothers Hughes used hits all the right buttons for me. Also I thought the story and plot was very original, yet executed simply. They didn't give you too much information about the world you were put in and where it came from, but they gave you enough so you weren't left wondering too much. The one thing I am still left wondering about is the "others" that everyone kept checking hands for. Who were they? 8/10
Tim on Jan 15, 2010
You guys decided to start writing reviews again or something?
Nick on Jan 15, 2010
all i have to say, go see it ! great movie
steph' on Jan 15, 2010
sounds like a christian flick. Maybe i'll rent it. Not big on being preached to. Even if the preaching is hidden behind cool graphics and violence.
Vold on Jan 15, 2010
@Vold It's as much a Christian flick as 'The Kingdom' was a Christian flick. There is absolutely zero preachyness to it.
Tim on Jan 15, 2010
I mean Kingdom of Heaven... but same thing. Point is, it's not a Christian movie.. at ...all..
Tim on Jan 15, 2010
It's more and more obvious that the writers at firstshowing have no idea what they are doing. The entire review Brandon contradicted himself.."its clear, but its not." What is that? On the movie's side...It is not an extraordinary film by any means, but it does deliver good entertainment, story and characters. There are Christian themes, but it is not preachy. The visuals are great, although overdone on the CG at points. All-in-all, Eli was a good film. #1 is right. Being a critic is a lame job. If you don't make movies yourself, you shouldn't tear them apart OR give them praise...because honestly, how do you even know whats right and whats not, what's good and what is not? Simple, you don't...it's just opinion and feelings.
one on Jan 15, 2010
i had a feeling thats what it would be like. seeing it tonite. i feel like this is going to disappoint me the same way daybreakers did. not making them bad movies, just ...slight.....heh
lego on Jan 15, 2010
# Brandon lee Turney # Your Review for the Book of Eli isn’t all that bad. But I would have like you to get more to the point of the film. IE is any good giving a brief outline of the story is the acting any good without veering in to pointless of mentioning other country’s like Iraq and so on and so on and persons sexuality. It’s wofferling. 😉
Cineprog on Jan 15, 2010
Wow. What's with the haters? I haven't seen the movie yet, but this is one of the most well-written reviews I've read in a while. Brandon is exactly the type of reviewer I think SHOULD be writing reviews. I mean, what is the point of reading a review if you think the concept of reviewing is pointless? Anyway, I'm going to see this movie for the stylization, the action, and the terrific actors (I'm happy to see Gary return to the dark side). I expect a fun ride. Nothing less, nothing more.
Kable on Jan 15, 2010
Brandon, Thank you for your insightful review. Very professionally written. I was getting hesitant about seeing this movie, but your review has convinced me to see it this weekend. I'll post back my thoughts when I do. I hope you get to write some more reviews on this site, I was missing them.
dave13 on Jan 15, 2010
6.5 out of 10? I thought it was way better than that! Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I thought this review was like an internal struggle in Brandon's mind. It's clear, but it's not clear. It's surprising, but predictable. The fight scenes are exciting, but have no tension. Last exam I was graded on, a 65% was a solid D grade. This movie is easily an 8 out of 10!
T.O. on Jan 15, 2010
I would rate it better than that for sure. but everyone's got their own opinion. The thing that really did it for me was.....well almost everything. The score and cinematography are the two first things that come to mind when thinking of the movie. Followed closely by the acting and fight scenes. It's a movie I MUST see again for obvious reasons.
Dan W on Jan 15, 2010
I just saw the movie and Brandon's review is spot on. While watching the movie it was difficult to feel any emotion for Washington's character or the sidekick. I could not figure out why since Jennifer and Gary really pulled it off. I felt genuien hate for his character and sadness for her character. It all comes together very nicely at the end and its worth it. The ending is really great and makes me want to see it again. Brandon's bang on when he recommends you cover your ears when listening to others talk spoilers about the movie. The fight scenes where really well done and reminded me of how Wessley Snipes dispatches vampires in Blade. During the movie there is no explanation for Denzel's ability to kick ass but it gets all wrapped up in the end and its brilliant surprise. Loved the visuals and cinematography. Really stylish and I think made the movie have less emotion when compared to The Road because it was to overdone. As for the religion connection its completely light. It could have been any religion inserted into the movie and the plot would have still worked. Its not preachy at all. As for @1 person you are just a dick. This review is great except for the 6.5 .... The movie is more of an 8.
Sebastian on Jan 15, 2010
the action scenes in the trailer look really promising but all this talk of religion coming out in early reviews is quite distressing...not gonna waste my money on a high dollar promotion of religion...
jose saves on Jan 15, 2010
I don't know what you guys were smoking when you went to see the movie but it was HORRENDOUS. Eli never arcs. There is nothing at stake for him; he doesn't receive any wounds during any fight (except the end where he is magically fine all of a sudden when he gets that place). He's not even challenged as he fights... Horrible ending... if he is the way they say he is at the end; why would he be blasting his Ipod while on night watch??? That doesn't make any sense. The movie would have worked better if Eli was just a normal man with the belief that the book had to get to West... no divine intervention, no I'm a superbadass ninja. A normal man struggling with in that post-apocalypse of a world for everything he is; the chance that any of hazards might kill him or that Oldman was actually going to be a threat to his mission. Jennifer and Gary were alright, considering what they were working with. Go see THE ROAD. If you care about story at all, you will be disappointed with Book of Eli.
Charles on Jan 15, 2010
10/10. This movie was absolutely amazing.
Brian Ricci on Jan 15, 2010
I thought the film was pretty good. Definitely not a film for everyone. It's a movie that takes a lot of "faith" to enjoy. It sounded like Brandon in his review was more fascinated with the "religious" aspect of the plot, rather than with the spiritual. But I disagree. I think that's what made the film interesting, the fact that there's a supernatural act at work in a world that is normally considered natural. Of course, I'm pretty sure that's the topic that is up for debate. Personally, as a believer, I had no problem with this plot device. I thought it worked great and I felt like it enhanced the plot twist toward the end. But no matter what your opinion, this is a film you'll leave the movie theater loving or hating. And if that's what the Hughes Brothers were aiming for, then they certainly did a great job!
Icefilm on Jan 16, 2010
If you are familiar with the old testament then the killing in this movie makes perfect sense. God had no problem with smiting.
KM on Jan 18, 2010
Unfortunatelly this movie came to my country last month... so that's why I'm commenting until now: "Its parts are simply greater than its sum" - that's a pretty good way to put it. But yeah, it's an awesome movie! I love movies which ending is everything but what you thought it would happen!
Chucho on Apr 23, 2010
I just happened across this site and had to leave a comment. First, and to the top conversation on the reviewer/critic, I agree it is this person's job to express his opinions about the movie, just as it's a policeman's job to hand out a citation for what he believes to be an offense, but this is just the writers opinion and we all have different views on different things. We all pick people to follow, whether it's a roll model to radio host, but we choose these and we should also choose to move on if we don't agree with whats being said, especially something as simple as a movies review. There's a lot of different reviews out there on this movie, some with low marks and some that give the movie an A+. I suggest to find those good reviews and add something positive to those, but even leaving your opinion (On the movie, not the critic) on a review that may not have good marks is OK, but stick to the movie and address it, not the opinion of the writer. As a reader, I would appreciate it MUCH more if I had different opinions on the movie to make my decisions to watch it from and reading all the BS at the beginning of this site would have certainly convinced me to find another location to base my decision on weather I would spend money to watch this movie or not. I personally LOVED this movie, I thought this was "ONE" of Washington's best so far (American Gangster and The Hurricane were up there too) and in fact I watched this movie 4+ times, because I loved the action scenes and I liked the overall plot. I made sure not to read anything on this movie and it keep me in suspense (Eli's Objective) until the end of the movie. I thought the action scenes were second to none I have seen so far this year (the way he used his sword was realistic as hell) and would watch it again if it were on cable somewhere. Now, in saying all this, I will admit, I'm not someone that goes to the theater every weekend and in fact, I might make it to the theater to see a movie that looks interesting every other month. So take what you will from my opinions and I hope you all find the movie as interesting as I do, but if not, then that's OK too. Have a great Holiday and a fantastic New Year!
Bigsport on Dec 21, 2010
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