The Book of Eli is one of the ballsiest movies I've seen in a long time. A religion-infused commentary wrapped in a post-apocalyptic disguise, this movie is already polarizing critics across the web with its handling of spiritual messages and metaphors. But don't let that scare you away - if you're looking for a kick-ass action movie and you can handle the religious subtext, look no further. The Hughes Brothers have crafted a stylish genre flick that hits all the beats: bar room brawl, highway robbers getting what's coming to them, and a bullet-riddled standoff in which a house gets completely destroyed. Action fans, you won't be disappointed.
I haven't seen any of the Hughes Brothers' films before this one (this is only their fifth), but if the visual style in The Book of Eli is any indication of their previous work, I'm excited to check out their filmography. One might argue that it's easy to create a post-apocalyptic world since the genre has been around for so long, but it takes a considerable amount of talent to create an environment that feels fully realized, and the brothers have done it here with relative ease. Gae Buckley, the production designer, worked on Kevin Costner's 2003 western Open Range and here she translates those sensibilities into a vast expanse of abandoned vehicles and run-down towns. Ash, dust, and sand tear across the screen; the movie is tinted with pinks, grays, and blues; the sky features an unbroken line of constantly moving clouds.
In the story, a war ripped a hole in the sky thirty years ago, leaving the sun-scorched country in ruins. Denzel Washington's character (spoiler alert - his name is Eli) has been tasked with transporting a book across the country to a safe place, and he's been wandering west for thirty years trying to accomplish his mission. Carnegie (Gary Oldman) has been searching for the very book that Eli holds, but his goal is to use the book for his own purposes: the classic western theme of expansion. While Eli is willing to kill to protect the book, Carnegie is equally willing to kill to procure the book for himself. A slave girl named Solara (Mila Kunis) latches on to Eli in the hopes of escaping her oppression, and the two battle Carnegie and his goons as they set out to do whatever it takes to get the book.
Even at 55 years old, Denzel Washington is completely believable as a knife-wielding badass wandering west across a desolate America. Most of the action revolves around his character, and one shot in particular stands out in my mind (you've seen this in the trailer): a silhouetted Denzel takes down a group of highway robbers in one brutal shot, framed brilliantly against a highway overpass that doubles an an homage to the famous opening and closing shots of John Ford's The Searchers. In a previous podcast, Mazer and I had our doubts about Washington's physicality, but I completely bought him in this role and I thought he did a pretty great job with what he was given. Gary Oldman was entertaining (as always) in a villainous role reminiscent of Gene Hackman's in Eastwood's Unforgiven: he had a cheesy character, but restrained himself from going completely over-the-top with his performance. Mila Kunis seemed a bit out of her league, but I thought she did a fine job with a semi-annoying character. The only way she's going to grow professionally is by working with superior actors, so I think this is a necessary step forward for her and her performance certainly wasn't enough to curb my enjoyment of the movie.
If I had to pick one aspect of this film I enjoyed the most, it would be the camera work. The Hughes Brothers allow their camera to hover; they're content to capture something in a single shot that other directors and editors would have chopped into ten or twelve shots. In a post-Bourne world, I always find that refreshing. The opening ten or fifteen minutes (and I realize this is high praise, but I'm going to say it anyway) reminded me of Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, mixed with Francis Lawrence's I Am Legend. The way the film unfolds with almost no dialogue in those first few minutes, instead relying completely on the visuals and ambient audio to introduce us to their burnt-out world, set a tone that I wish the rest of the film could have retained. (Calm down, film snobs - the comparisons to PTA stop there.)
There are other visual flashes of brilliance as well. I'm thinking specifically of the final standoff sequence, where the camera moves around (aided by post-production work) and through the walls and windows of the dilapidated house where Eli and Solara try to fend off Carnegie and his thugs. I'm not sure if it was necessary to tell the story, but it looked pretty freaking cool. It was definitely one of the highlights of the movie for me.
I said before this is one of the ballsiest movies I've seen in a long time. The reason for that is because of how open the film is about its treatment of religion. Normally a taboo subject in mainstream film (at least these days), a movie that takes any stance at all in regards to religion is sure to earn my respect. Sure, the movie is very "Hollywood" - it's slick, not terribly deep, features huge movie stars, and is pretty on-the-nose with its messages. But the one thing that this movie is not? Safe. The Hughes Brothers took a risk here, and I think their gamble deserves to be rewarded. Even if you find yourself among those who don't share Eli's beliefs in the movie, perhaps it'll be enough to get a conversation started - and I think that's all the brothers Hughes were aiming for. I appreciated the element of Gary Whitta's script that suggested perhaps the book that Eli is carrying was ultimately responsible for the apocalypse, and thought that was a nice touch that allows for some alternate readings of the film instead of just a pro-Christian viewpoint. Annaleen has a great piece over at io9 that examines comparisons between The Book of Eli and the cult-classic Zardoz (a connection that is pretty obvious if you've seen the latter), so I'd suggest checking that out for another perspective on the flick.
I'm not going to give away the ludicrous twist near the end, but I will say that it's enough to make me want to go back and watch this movie again. It makes almost no sense based on what we've seen prior, but presents an interesting question: is Eli the receiver of divine intervention or borderline superpowers? Or, perhaps, are they one and the same?
Is The Book of Eli worth seeing in a theater? I'd say go for it. I enjoyed the movie on multiple levels: I thought the action was outstanding, the messages were interesting (since you don't see them handled this way very often in today's movies), the western/Road Warrior mashup was an entertaining landscape, and the cinematography was refreshing and fun to watch. Until next time...