THE BOOK OF ELI
The Hughes Brothers
Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Evan Jones, Joe Pingue, Francse de la Tour, Michael Gambon, Tom Waits
R for some brutal violence and language.
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As production companies slowly mine the life out of graphic novels, stylistically-similar, but non-literary, feature films have begun taking root at the multiplex. The Book of Eli is another in a long series of original motion pictures applying the typical comic mold.
This is the story of a lone man named Eli (Denzel Washington) travelling thousands of miles from the site of a nuclear incident towards San Francisco hoping to take his Bible to somewhere safe and use it to help teach people the words within it. Along the way, he stumbles across a small boomtown run by a book worm named Carnegie (Gary Oldman) who seeks only one book for his collection, an original copy of the Bible.
When the two meet and Eli’s possessions become known, Carnegie will stop at nothing to possess the book, even if it means killing Eli in the process.
The premise itself is fairly simple, yet the execution varies from lazy and cliched to rich and detailed. Eli is your typical road warrior, powerful and dangerous. He know how to fight and win. We are shown this prowess early on as he passes under an overpass where an injured, frightened, hungry woman sits hoping for a handout. It is little more than an ambush. A gang of disease-addled miscreants have lied in wait for someone, anyone, to fall into their trap. Yet, they have not anticipated Eli. He doesn’t look like a killer, but they soon discover he is not someone to be trifled with.
Washington’s performance suitably, but unexceptionally captures this man Eli. His is the standard by which all other actors in the film can be compared...largely because he’s about as average as one could have expected. Oldman, whose performances long ago began to decline in quality, plays Washington’s chief enemy chewing his scenery with vanity.
His lover’s daughter Solara, played gratingly by Mila Kunis, is a misfit in a sea of grunge. She may have a semi-disheveled look, but she is too glossy for the production and adds a small layer of incredibility to the production. The woman playing her mother Claudia, Jennifer Beals, is the lone treasure of performance here. Unlike Kunis, she wears her disarrayed appearance like a badge of honor.
She is a radiant presence that lifts the scenes she works in to another level. Although Beals has not always been a great actress, you wouldn’t be able to tell that from this performance. The character comes across as tender and compassionate without feeling like a simpleton or a pushover. She is world weary, but compassionate. She has lived and worked and suffered for her daughter, and no matter the abuses inflicted upon her, she smiles and moves forward for her goal is clear: to survive and to provide. And this is all conveyed in short order, quickly and efficiently, the sign of a talented actress.
The Hughes Brothers, Albert and Allen, have had a respectable, but not outstanding career in the film industry. Their last film, 2001’s From Hell, is an exploration of the myths and theories surrounding the case of Jack the Ripper. That film was a comic adaptation and here, they have obviously been influenced by the style, giving this film a similar treatment. Although the sepia tones and faded hues fit the film tonally, they become more oppressive as the film wears on. They fill several scenes with exaggerated and effusive violence, further pushing the idea that this is a glorified comic book adventure.
What really makes the film work is Gary Whitta’s evocative screenplay. It’s not a trifle of exploratory rhetoric like the similarly styled Daybreakers, it has a deep core of principled exposition, providing the audience with a humanistic approach to biblical teachings. My personal thoughts about religion are vast and varied, but when I watch films like this, I immediately expect to be preached at, talked down to and otherwise insulted by the overzealous attempts to harmonize religion.
Yet, watching The Book of Eli, the religious undertones were not aggressive or unnecessary. They were simply stated and richly observed. The hypocrisy of religious demagogues and zealots is exposed without remorse and the audience is provided with a more gracious and learned interpretation of the words of the Bible.
The overly violent elements of The Book of Eli, intended to draw a younger demographic to the picture, may be frequently at odds with these concepts, but the end result is a satisfying movie that isn’t as overbearing as one would expect.
April 30, 2010
The Book of Eli