Violent 'Book of Eli' Smarter Than It Looks

Religion can be a dangerous thing. Not belief, mind you, which roots in a personal decision, but the actual institution that shapes what you believe, like a slab of clay on a spinning wheel. In the right hands, it can be rewarding and offer a sense of community; in others, it can be restricting, painful, and damaging. The Book of Eli, a gritty post-apocalyptic grind in the eyes of From Hell and Menace 2 Society directors Allen and Albert Hughes, pivots around this idea, while molding a hero out of Denzel Washington that protects a book of belief for that very reason. While a man defending this relic of faith-based society to the tooth for merely personal reasons might not strike a chord of authenticity, seeing a man brashly slice through marauders so that the wrong hands don't maliciously contort the book's context certainly does. That makes the Hughes Brothers' film somewhat daring, all while they retain a sense of exhilaration about the dusty, visceral action.

Eli (Washington), sporting sunglasses, worn clothing, saran wrap on his feet, and a small arsenal in his backpack, hikes from location to location with the aim of going west, sporting unexplained skill with a blade and bow 'n arrow that's meant to be pre-build survivalist knowledge in our eyes. He stops at a decrepit house and listens to an MP3 player while setting up camp, made possible by a small rechargeable power source that we're shown later in the film (just saved a little mind-nagging there). The wasted land of post-"flash" America presents numerous challenges to nomads like Eli, including a dire lack of water, but most of these obstacles are man-made: dirty, gruff thugs on the road looking to steal from and kill on-comers, helpless women used as bait for wanderers, and small reconstructed cities lorded over by powerful mongers like Carnegie (Gary Oldman) holed up in a ritzy part of town and enjoying the luxuries the peons only dream of. All along the way, Eli stops everyday and reads from a book with a cross etched on, allowing no others to read or even lay their hands on it.

Compiling superb production design that's lensed by Spider-Man and Cast Away cinematographer Don Burgess, the environment on the road leading west in The Book of Eli ascribed to a conventional post-apocalyptic state, with a disparity and violent energy akin to that of a combination of Mad Max and the Fallout series of video games. A mix of computer-generated effects and focused cinematography etches out a destroyed landscape that's magnetic to the eye, highlighted by over-the-shoulder looks with Eli glancing at wanderers and peering down from a gap in an overpass road once part of a spaghetti junction. He slowly struts along endless expanses of abandoned cars and even more empty stretches of desert, leading to a town that's, for all intents and purposes, akin to a Western-style hub, complete with saloons, shifty provision locations, and brutish bandits. It doesn't hinge on the same desolate, sparse realism as John Hillcoat's The Road, instead building an environment ideal for brash action amid the remnants of civilization.

As Eli recharges his batteries in the town, both literally and figuratively, the real conflict begins to manifest within The Book of Eli. Villain Carnegie, ham-fistedly forced in a way that only Gary Oldman can do with a vein of legitimacy, has been sending his minions out to find the very book that Eli has brought into the hornet's nest. There, Eli also meets Solara (Mila Kunis), daughter to a blind woman and a soul yearning to escape from Carnegie's grasp. She catches wind of his book, while within his living area at the forced whims of Carnegie, and quietly wishes to hear about its contents; the obviousness behind her place as a "disciple" to the book's word can be a little bold, but Mila Kunis surprises with her validity as the lost yet strong Solara. Naturally, they all vie for concentration against Washington, who's just as expected as Eli -- composed, complex, and strapping, all wrapped up in, as Harvey Keitel would say, "a mean, mhm mhm servant of God" -- as he pumps soundness into his character as a machete-wielding nomad on a mission. Though violent, Eli's actions are also of a pious nature, denying himself desires of the flesh, teaching Solara about prayer before a meal, and forgiving evil-doers when possible.

That's the kind of picture that The Hughes Brothers focus on, a balanced hybrid of protective bursts of bloodshed and blunt but operative socio-religious allegory, and it's ambitious in what it thrusts at us. In that, you could consider it a ruthlessly adult take on religion's magnitude, while also retaining a shrewd level of exuberance about its activity for pure amusement's sake; at one point, Eli has to fend off a full bar full of brainless thugs, slicing through them as sprays of blood and thuds against the ground echo all about. The way it's shot, the grace of movement during the action, and the sense of importance within Eli as he protects what he's carrying are hand-in-hand suggestive and exhilarating. It doesn't hurt that the action's construction staggers with its veracity, especially the sober hand-to-hand combat. In that, the subtext stirs liberally with the engaging chaos, causing it to veer from seeming "preachy" about its aims. Eli's protecting a book, THE book, but it's easy to absorb just the "protect", the survivalist, aspect of it.

Yet, it's "the book" and its content that naturally creates a stir in The Book of Eli, adding a level of thought-provoking gravity to the picture that utilizes religion as both a potential weapon and a saving grace for society. Does the viewer have to be a "believer" in the book's context to grapple the magnitude of the picture's thought? I don't believe so, as even the most rigid of non-believers can pick up on the prospect of religion being a dangerous tool if used falsely by those who hold power -- maybe even more so. Within that, Gary Whitta's script finds a happy medium between Eli's quest being a "pilgrimage" to carry on faith and a staunch defense against the corruption of an already-crippled society. It's also got a thinly-veiled sense of humor that peeks out a few times, joking around with the desolate notion of cannibalism and the way which people used to eat meals at a dinner table. The dark-around-every-corner material needs this easing of tone, though getting it less frequently than desirable.

The Book of Eli leads up to a conclusion to the bloody slicing and tippy-toe thematic content that's a shade on the impractical side with its core twist -- but, surprisingly, it's so distinctive that the irrationality behind it can easily be disregarded. Clues are tossed into The Hughes Brothers' film throughout that suggests this conclusion, to the observant, yet it's only after the reveal -- and after a bit of a stunned sensation in seeing what we've seen -- that it'll all come together in outrageously satisfying fashion. Moreover, this finale also packs a punch with its messages about the survival of humankind and the safeguarding of society's past, in a way that's easy to digest yet slackjaw-inducing for what's essentially an action film with brains. Between powerhouse performances, especially from Denzel, a sublime aesthetic, and the ways in which sociological thought sparks amid finely-assembled, firmly R-rated violence, it's a blend of streamlined components that's insatiably compelling to behold as a whole.


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