Eli (Denzel Washington) is a regular post apocalyptic man. He walks the Earth, heading west, stopping only occasionally to read his book, dine on a meal of hairless cat, try on some dead man’s shoes and reign bloody carnage down on anyone who tries to stop him from enjoying his simple pleasures.
Like “The Road,” another film about a man making his way through a dystopian world, in “The Book of Eli,” we never find out how the world ended. We’re told it’s been thirty years since “the flash” and since then everything has pretty much fallen apart. Rogue gangs roam the desolate landscape, cannibalism is rampant—you can tell the cannibals because their hands shake from eating too much human flesh—and there are only small pockets of life left. One such pocket is a town run by Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a despot desperate to lay his hands on Eli’s prize possession—a book.
As the title would suggest “The Book of Eli” is V-E-R-Y Old Testament. Call it Neo Christian Post Apocalyptic if you like, but like the good book that lies at the center of the story, the movie is full of prophets, morals and righteous smiting. This is a metaphysical story with a few action scenes (but only a few, the trailer implies this is an all-out action flick and that is simply not the case) about the power of religion to both inspire and control people’s hearts.
Eli uses the book (SPOILER: it’s the last copy of the bible) as comfort and a reason to stay alive. Perhaps he’s a prophet, perhaps not, but he is the keeper of the book and it is a responsibility he takes very seriously even if he doesn’t realize why.
Carnegie, on the other hand, understands the power of the book’s words to, as he says, strike fear into the “heart of the weak and desperate.” For him it is the key to the complete control of the citizens of his town. He is, very likely, a Republican.
Bringing this world to, well, if not exactly vivid life—it is shot with a color palette that includes grey and various other shades of grey—is Washington and Oldman. Denzel is a bit too subdued to really sell the idea that he is a coiled spring of righteous power but that’s OK because Gary Oldman keeps things lively, chewing the scenery every time he is on screen. He’s a Jim Jones character, equal parts charisma and menace and the film benefits from his presence.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the female leads. As mother and daughter Jennifer Beals and Mila Kunis are the film’s acting Achilles heel. Kunis, in particular is miscast. Despite providing some visual interest, she is out of her depth here and brings little of the charm or magnetism she displayed in last year’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshal.”
Better is Tom Waits in an awesome cameo as a shop keeper who trades in contraband, like KFC wetnaps and old Zippo lighters. These items take on an increased value in this bleak world and Waits, with his craggily face and scorched vocal chords, brings increased value to his brief scenes.
“The Book of Eli” is a strange movie. It’s being sold as an actioner, but is actually a timely movie about how religion can be used for both good and evil. It may have been more effective with a bit more action and a tad less philosophy and without its series of false endings and while it may be filled with thought provoking ideas it doesn’t feel well enough thought out to work as a whole.