Monday, June 28, 2010
The only thing in The Book of Eli that should cause controversy among viewers is the ending. Some will buy it, others will not. People will surely argue its plausibility, but I accepted the ending because it reinforces the fact that this is an action film with real ideas. But let's forget the ending for a second and focus on the bigger picture: The first three-fourths of The Book of Eli is outstanding filmmaking, engineered by an appropriately haunting visual landscape and an irresistible star turn from Denzel Washington.
The Hughes Brothers, Albert and Allen, haven't directed a motion picture since 2001's From Hell. I am not sure why, but their newest film offers no reasons to suggest that their talent has diminished over the years. Their post-apocalyptic tale begins 30 years after "the war tore a hole in the sky." This is the explanation of Eli (Washington), a lonely wanderer who has been asked to travel West in an attempt to find the right place to deliver the last remaining copy of the Bible.
When Eli wakes up to realize that his battery his out of power, he winds up meeting with the engineer (Tom Waits) of a decrepit town run by the sinister Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Carnegie, thinking that attaining the Bible will give him the power needed to expand his empire, offers food, water, and a solid roof to a group of men so they will endlessly search for the book that is currently in Eli's hands. More often than not, they come back with a series of pulp novels. There is a humorous moment when one of the henchmen is disappointed to realize that a Dan Brown novel is not what Carnegie is looking for.
Carnegie is also able to bribe his workers with women. He keeps the blind Claudia (Jennifer Beals) for himself, but gleefully offers up Claudia's beautiful daughter Solara (Mila Kunis) when she can be of use. Such an instance comes in the form of Eli, who Carnegie believes he can bribe to stay by offering him Solara. Instead, Eli chooses to introduce the illiterate and unfamiliar woman to the power of praying. Unfortunately, this ends up backfiring on him, as Solara inadvertently reveals to Carnegie that Eli is in possession of the Bible.
Like any self-respecting disaster film, there is violence. But The Hughes Brothers stage their set pieces with remarkable panache and style. The first great action sequence, a showdown between Eli and a group of disgusting travelers, is put forth in silhouette form. Another highlight comes later in the film when Eli and Solara, traveling together at this point, come across the shabby home of George (Michael Gambon) and Martha (Frances de la Tour).
For this performance, Washington is asked to pull of a variety of things. He nails Eli's persona perfectly, which is an interesting mix of quietude and charisma. I don't think Eli ever raises his voice or makes any whimsical movements in the entire film, yet there is a fascinating quality to him that makes the character compulsively watchable. Some of this must be accredited to Washington's believable presence as an action hero, despite his aging appearance. The actor should also thank Eli's piercing, twenty-inch blade (give or take) for contributing to his formidable presence.
The other actors also fare quite well. Gary Oldman, one who has never shied away from a villainous role, is effective playing Carnegie because he knows how to make the character a certifiable psychopath without ever going too far. Mila Kunis is also able to hold her own, even though she shares most of her scenes with seasoned veterans more than twice her age.
One of the most admirable things about The Book of Eli - a mid-January release incorrectly billed as an ultra-violent action romp - is that it has a definitive message. Even more admirable is that it doesn't bombard you with this message in the final ten minutes, even if that is what some viewers may take away. The Hughes Brothers, working from an intelligent Gary Whitta screenplay, sprinkle their ideas and themes throughout the entire picture. If it ends up becoming too preachy, at least it presents itself as a film that wants to be about something more than just beautifully-staged set pieces. I can buy that.
There is no clear reason why the first 90 minutes of this film shouldn't please viewers beyond expectations. But because the film takes a leap with its ending - and because endings usually contribute so much to our opinion of a film - those who have trouble believing the final twists of Whitta's script may not care to remember how good most of this film really is. Here's my advice to those people: Don't let the sour taste in your mouth overpower the deliciousness of the first two-and-a-half acts.