Movie Review: The Book of Eli

M: Once again thanks to a friend I was able to get into a screening of a movie that I really wanted to see before it opened.  This time it was Denzel Washing’s post apocalyptic western The Book of Eli.  There have been a lot of post apocalyptic movies made, both recently and over the years, and while The Book of Eli is not entirely formulaic, it bears resemblance in parts to several others, like the excellent Mad Max and underrated but still not very good The Postman.  It’s set in the no-one-is-sure-how-distant future, some 30 years after a major apocalyptic event, and follows Denzel’s Eli as he walks west across the barren wastes, getting into a few scrapes along the way.  I was very excited heading in, and very conflicted coming out.

Right from the opening scene the film is shot beautifully, with the long absent Hughes brothers (who hadn’t directed anything since 2001’s From Hell) creating a kind of ashen, almost colorless world.  The first shot is in a forrest with what looks like it could be either snow, leaves or volcanic ash falling gently around a dead body that is happened upon by a small, hairless cat.  The score for the scene, and the whole film, sets a dark, almost hopeless tone that fits it well, and stays with you after you leave the theater.

The film moves slowly, not just at first but throughout, at a pace that made it feel longer than it was, but not in a bad way.  We learn little of what has happened to the world, and not until well into the film.  What we do find at the start is that water is scarce, that the world is a very dangerous place, and that Eli is more than capable of taking care of himself.  In the words of the Dread Pirate Roberts, he is no one to be trifled with.  Very deliberately, he is walking west and “staying on the path”, trying not to get involved in the troubles of others as he goes.  Shortly after one bloody fight scene, the battery for his beat up old iPod dies, when he comes across a small town and stops to get it recharged.  While waiting he goes to the saloon…  uh, bar across the street, and that’s when things really start to happen.  After a thug tries to pick a fight, we are treated to a truly gruesome fight scene in which many heads are sliced off, while Eli comes away without a scratch.  I don’t have a weak stomach, but it made me pretty queasy.

While in town we get introduced to our other main characters, our completely one dimensional villain Carnegie, played as best as the role could be by the incomparable Gary Oldman.  That Oldman’s chameleonic talents are lost on this role aggravated me almost as much as the role itself.  I can’t stand when the bad guy is evil just for the sake of being evil, and has no depth.  (E: How many times have we heard Dad make that complaint?  I think it’s his favorite.)  Carnegie has none, is simply searching for power, and kills and destroys at whim.  Unlike Will Patton’s General Bethlehem in the previously mention Postman, who at least has some semblance of purpose and reason, Carnegie seems to exist only to create a plot obstacle in Eli’s path.  However he does also create their opening to introduce two better characters, Claudia (Flashdance‘s Jennifer Beals), who is not quite Carnegie’s wife, but not entirely his slave either, and her daughter Solara (Forgetting Sarah Marshall‘s Mila Kunis).  It is Solara’s interaction with Eli that gives some heart to the movie.

Before this point we have only seen a couple shots of Eli with the mysterious book of the title, that he carries with him shrouded and locked.  It is at this time that we, and Carnegie, find that it is a Bible.  We find that it may be the last remaining Bible in the world, as they rest were burned because people thought they may have been the cause for the war.  Carnegie is looking for it so he can control the people and build more towns to control.  Oooooh, so original!  Blech.  Eli it taking it west, and with a bit more carnage, in which he again escapes unscratched, heads off with both Solara and Carnegie following him, the former because he provided hope of something better, the latter for basically the same reason, but with very different intentions on what that something better is.

After slowing down to save Solara from bandits the movie gets deeper, as Eli shares some of the scriptures with her, tells her a bit of the history of the war, and shares the tale of how he was guided by a prophetic voice to find the book, and is protected by it (hence the unscathed battles).  He tells her that he reads from it daily, and has done so for the last 30 years, and that it provides hope and The Way.  This part was very Christian, and stood in very stark and confusing contrast to the earlier scenes of decapitation and gore.

In their attempt to escape Carnegie, there is an excellent scene in which old British stars Frances de la Tour and Michael Gambon (that’s right, this movie has Sirius Black and Albus Dumbledore in it!) play a couple of prim and proper cannibals.  There’s some more carnage, a couple of smaller, somewhat expected twists, and then a reveal that surprised me and everyone I was with.  As E and C can tell you, that doesn’t happen very often.

Still, we all left the theater feeling confused, none of us quite knowing what to make of the movie we had just seen.  It was hopeful and faith filled, yet gruesome and gory.  It extolled the virtues of the Bible and faith, and gave it as the cause for a cataclysmic world war.  It kept our rapt attention the entire two hour running time, and had us talking about it for the rest of our time together.  But none of us could say if we liked it or not.  In the end, what we all concluded was that it would be a very different experience watching it a second time.  Would any of us end up doing that?  That’s as of yet undecided.

Post Script, about a day later:

Oddly, the more I think back on it the more the movie is making me think, and the more I’m interested in seeing it again.  It’s kind of like that taste that lingers in your mouth and at first you aren’t sure you like it, but the more it lingers the more you want to eat….  hmmm, I think I just described enchanted Turkish Delight.

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