The Book of Eli, another New Mexico-as-wasteland movie, rated R, Regal Stadium 14, 2 chiles
The Book of Eli is a post-apocalypticWestern; it’s an evangelical tract; it’s a road movie; it’s a martial-arts movie; it’s a disaster movie; it’s a graphic novel. It’s equal parts The Road and The Robe, A Fistful of Dollars and Fist of Fury. It’s Mad Max meets Left Behind in Deadwood. It occupies a philosophical landscape somewhere between Mel Gibson and Hoot Gibson. Having said that, it’s fastpaced, with some entertaining performances, stylish visuals, and plenty of action. It’s also ponderously righteous and wildly silly, with leaps of logic to try the patience of a saint.
But as its hero Eli (DenzelWashington) solemnly observes, “It doesn’t have to make sense. It’s faith.” It is the movie’s most telling line, words that directors Albert and Allen Hughes have chosen to live by.
Eli is a survivor of “the flash.” We’re not quite sure what it was, but it involved a war of some sort, and it happened more than 30 years ago. Since then, Eli has been walking west, directed by voices in his head, through an ashen, desolate, car-and-corpsestrewn countryside (much of the film was shot in New Mexico, of course) that picks up where The Road left off. We’re not sure where Eli started from, but assuming it was the East Coast, this puts him on a pace slightly worse than a thousand miles a decade. But for reasons that will become clear at the end, he may not have an unerring sense of direction (we see him double back at least once, and re-encounter the same woman with a broken shopping cart). He carries a backpack crammed with treasures and weapons. Chief among the latter is a knife of surpassing sharpness, a blade that can cut through sinew and bone with the flick of a wrist. Paramount among the former, valued above even his hoarded supply of moist towelettes, is a Bible, the last one on Earth.
Eli practices a muscular sort of Christianity, not the wimpy, oldfashioned, turn-the-other-cheek variety. He’s not looking for a fight — indeed, he will watch from hiding, muttering to himself “stay on the path; it’s not your concern” as a man is robbed and killed and his wife raped by a gang of marauders. But he can be pushed just so far, and no further. “You lay that hand on me again and you will not get it back,” he warns a threatening tough. And he means it.
Next to the Good Book, Eli’s other most treasured possession is an iPod loaded with old disco tunes, which he has managed to keep running through the decades. When its battery runs down, he is forced to brave the physical and moral dangers of a town. While a snuffling Tom Waits recharges the battery at the general store, Eli reconnoiters.
The town is the fiefdom of a typical old Western-movie overlord, the philanthropically named Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Carnegie is one of those diminutive, smilingly vicious psychopaths who use their wits to cow into submission brutish muscle and gorgeous women. Among those are his mistress, the beautiful, blind Claudia (Jennifer Beals), and her lovely daughter Solara (Mila Kunis), possibly the only two clean people left on Earth.
Carnegie rules the town, but he wants to rule the world. To do this, he needs a book. What book, you ask? No, not the biography of Mussolini he is reading when we meet him, or even the paperback of The Da Vinci Code that is among the cache of reading material that his thugs dump on his desk from their latest haul.
No, it’s the book that Eli has been hauling west and reading every day: the world’s last Bible. If he wants the book that badly, this Carnegie must be a pious sort, you’re thinking. No. The book can be a force for good or for evil. “I grew up with it,” Carnegie tells Eli. They are among the few in this gray new world old enough to remember the old green one. “I know its power. If you read it, so do you. That’s why they burned them all after the war.” Armed with the Bible, Carnegie believes he can control the populace. “It’s a weapon,” he says.
Once Carnegie discovers that Eli has the last surviving Bible, the game is on, and it won’t be over till one or the other wins. The contest reaches its climax at the wayside home of a couple of charming old cannibals named George and Martha (Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour), who give new meaning to the game of “Get the Guest.” After that the story continues west (Eli reaches the coast so quickly that he can’t have been more than a few miles away) to a shocking twist of a denouement, a bit of flim-flammery that will make you almost, but not quite, want to go back and see the movie again to decide whether it was playing fair all along.
For this film, the Hughes brothers stepped behind the camera for the first time since 2001’s Johnny Depp-driven Jack the Ripper story, From Hell. The screenplay is by Gary Whitta, a former editor of PC Gamer magazine, and the video-game provenance of this story is apparent in the spectacular, gory visuals. The movie should appeal to that market— and to those audiences who believe in the use of violence to spread God’s word.
That 2070s show: Mila Kunis and Denzel Washington
II post-apocalyptic society: Gary Oldman