Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman shine in The Book of Eli, the Hughes Brothers’ post-apocalyptic tale of one man’s quest to fulfill his God-given mission.
At first, while the scene was being set before the story kicked in, it was difficult not to experience Eli in direct comparison and contrast to The Road, in which case I feared it would fail miserably. Miserably not because Eli itself was lacking (it was excellent in this respect, actually), but because The Road is so mercilessly realistic, whereas Eli maintains that larger-than-life heroism which allows us to remember that “it’s just a movie.” (Plus there’s mostly still food.)
That said, once the story gains traction the tendency to compare diminishes sufficiently (though never entirely), and Eli’s world comes to the fore as we begin to understand his mission. (It makes for a superb double-feature, by the way ~ just be sure to watch Eli second.)
The Book of Eli is highly stylized, and I would say “visually stunning” except that I hate that term, since it usually means there’s nothing much else to be said about the film in question. Not so here. Eli is tale of tremendous hope, spirituality, courage, and a sense of purpose. With artistry inspired by the graphic novel tradition, its imagery and framing dazzle the eye. One senses exactly what the team was after, and that they nailed it precisely as intended.
Denzel Washington is superbly cast, to the point that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role. His thespian prowess, strength of personality, and physical demeanor actualize Eli in every detail. Eli is the man every man hopes he would be after the apocalypse, and the man every woman hopes to have in her life (again, remember that aforementioned larger-than-life quality…).
It was Washington’s idea to seek the venerable Gary Oldman for the role of resident obsessed despot Carnegie. Oldman incarnates him perfectly as a man who, as director Albert Hughes remarked, is not a bad man, but rather a man who does bad things. Indeed. Only Oldman can infuse one, perhaps two, scenes of decency with enough juice to instill a sense of esteem that carries us through every other of the man’s utterly loathsome acts and intentions.
Eli also features strong female characters ~ a real breath of fresh air, particularly in this genre. Each facing a different challenge (details foregone so as not to spoil any surprises), they respond with ingenuity and fortitude (even the bad ones), routinely putting themselves at grave risk when their integrity was on the line, rather than yield to superior force.
It must be said, Eli does falter on the details; it seems as though the filmmakers were so focused on style and the overall theme that either they didn’t notice or they didn’t think that any of us, to quote director Chris Eigeman, “are playing the serious home game.” (Note to filmmakers everywhere: we are.) For example, Eli meets and leaves a bereft individual on his trek to the West, whom we meet again now apparently many days’ journey ahead of him (??). Or that there are several references to “The Flash” and “the war” having caused the current desolation, but many environmental elements don’t bear this out ~ no lasting effects of nuclear winter (there’s that Road thing again…), large craters that imply an asteroid strike, and the like. And don’t get me started on a particular bullet wound. (Unless that relates to a possible thematic explanation, which opens a whole new can of worms given that it was never otherwise discussed, but onward.)
Still, the story hangs together well overall, with strong characterizations, performances, and attention to major thematic elements ~ and it contains a couple of nice surprises at the end, which of course must be left here for the moment. There’s also a fun Harry Potter mini-reunion, and it’s amusing to watch Mila Kunis vie for the Angelina Jolie mantle the way Daniel Craig auditioned for Bond in Layer Cake.
Albert Hughes said he hoped that we “would be thrilled with the look, the action, the adventure, and also be moved by the journey that Eli is on.” Done.
For more info: The Book of Eli opens Jan 15th; check Fandango for listings.