I loves me a good western and The Book of Eli fits the bill. Don’t let the post-apocalyptic setting fool you; The movie opens on a shot of a six-shooter, the main character (Denzel Washington) is headed west and doesn’t reveal his name until the end of the movie (thus making him that old west archetype, “The Stranger”*), an old saloon, and other trademarks of the western genre along the way. But the post-apocalyptic setting provides a nice twist by removing almost all modern technology except for a heavy arsenal of weapons…and an iPod. The Hughes Brothers have made a well-shot, well-edited, and exciting film, but it also features a very heavy-handed religious message. It’s a hurdle, but The Book of Eli manages to clear it.
Eli impressed me right out the gate by having no dialogue for almost the first ten minutes of the movie. By the end, we know almost everything we need to about the Stranger and the world he inhabits. The stranger walks through the beige deserts and crumbled cities of what used to be our country (the look of the film called to mind the videogame Fallout 3), but remnants of modern civilization remain. The Stranger is an excellent survivalist, and he shows off a resourcefulness that seems obvious yet it’s rare in the post-apocalypse. When he goes into an empty house, he’s careful. He always runs the faucets to see if there’s the slightest chance of water. In the speechless opening of the film, he discovers a person who has hanged himself. Rather than walking away from a tragic moments, the Stranger does what is necessary and checks the dead man’s pockets and then takes his shoes. Washington has such gravitas that the character’s scavenging feels more like stoic pragmatism. Later, there’s a scene where the Stranger’s actions (or inaction) is almost unforgivable but the Hughes frame it in such a way that we no longer question the character’s commitment to his mission, but understand he still has humanity. It’s a difficult balancing act, but Washington and the Hughes make sure we’re on the character’s side because we can appreciate him beyond his ability to kill enemies ten times before they hit the ground.
However, that is entertaining to watch and after showing off his finishing moves to a group of unlucky highwaymen (like in the western, the hero’s fighting ability is never in question), the Stranger eventually arrives in a shanty town run by a man named Carnagie (Gary Oldman) who just so happens to be looking for the book the Stranger is carrying. Following an fast-paced but well-cut action scene where the Stranger slices up a room full of people trying to kill him, Carnagie offers the Stranger the appealing job of being a henchaman. Stranger isn’t interested but stays the night as a guest/prisoner. Carnagie tempts him with his blind lover’s daughter, Solara (Mila Kunis), but the Stranger, being a soft-spoken noble warrior, refuses her advances and instead they share a meal where the Stranger says grace.
That’s when it’s clear that the book is the Bible. Carnagie wants to use it as a weapon to control the hearts and minds of the remaining populace, while the Stranger presumably wants to use it as a force for good and there’s something out west that will allow him to do it. I know it seems like I’m dodging spoilers when this isn’t a mindfuck of a movie, but it’s more enjoyable to let it open up, especially since the previews have sold it more as a standard post-apocalyptic action flick.
And the action does not disappoint, and neither do the performances, cinematography, and overall direction. They all need to click together because the movie gets very preachy, to the point where it’s a little uncomfortable. Personally, I found it a little funny as I kept thinking of Patton Oswalt’s “Sky Cake” bit from his latest album, “My Weakness Is Strong” (in short, people do good things because they believe when they die they’ll get to go up in the clouds and eat all the cake they want; religious wars happen when there’s disagreement about what type of baked good await in the afterlife). But the heavy reliance on “Christianity will save the world,” does raise the question of why new myths don’t just replace established religion. Carnagie and the Stranger are significantly older than everyone else so they’re among the few literate people in the world, but before Christianity, cultures had religion; they just didn’t write it down. It was an oral tradition used more as a way to explain the outside world rather than a user’s manual for why you should be good to your fellow man (“Sky cake!”). It doesn’t make sense why Carnagie can’t just make up a new religion and use that to control the people. Maybe it’s because the character has no charisma and no depth. Gary Oldman has played some great villains in his time and he’s wasted here.
But on the whole, The Hughes Brothers have created a solid western and done so in a clever fashion by putting it beneath the guise of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It’s a confident film that trusts the story its telling and how it’s being told. If you don’t mind the promotion of extreme measures resulting from blind faith, then you should show some thanks to The Book of Eli for being an exciting, well-made, clever film. Blessed be the western. Amen.
Rating —– B
*IMDb gives the character’s name, but the movie doesn’t strongly hint at it until halfway through and then only confirms it in the last ten minutes or so. If you think my referring to the character as “The Stranger” is lame, too bad.