Grindhouse determinism and dogma meld into a spiritual and violent road trip in The Book of Eli. Denzel Washington is Eli, and the book he carries on his journey westward--or thereabouts for thirty years--is desired by Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who has been searching for it for probably just as long. Their struggle over possession of the book provides the movie's grindhouse-styled bedlam, but the movie transcends blatant exploitative elements by substituting faith, destiny, and the passion of the Gibson's Mad Max sense of purpose when surrounded by despair for the more lurid and gratuitous action of pure exploitation.
Eli's arm-length knife, one that would make Crocodile Dundee wet his pants, is exploited for all its heft. Worth more than a flaming sword, Eli wields it with uncanny precision; even, it seems, as if the blade moves before he does. He carries the book, his knife, a dingy iPod connected to a large battery, and a prayer down a near-endless road stretching off into the distance under a cloudy sky. All around him is bleak terrain, desolation, and post-apocalyptic wreckage of people and artifacts. The human wreckage is the most dangerous. His only purpose is to keep moving westward and keep the book safe, but Carnegie and the occasional gang looking for their next meal interfere. He says "we don't have to do this" just before he does, and what he does with that blade is fast and lethal.
A roadside encounter with a group of smelly thugs under an overpass is ended by swift and eloquent damage inflicted by his blade. You do not see any blood; it is all done in silhouette. But clearly, limbs, heads, and any available body part within slashing range are assaulted with ballet-like precision. Another encounter with a motorcycle gang, inside the local watering hole, is dealt with in a giddy 360 degree spin-view of thrusting, parrying, and dying. This time there is no darkness to hide the spilling blood or flying body parts. The ruckus brings Eli to Carnegie's attention. Carnegie insists he hand over the book, Eli politely and resolutely declines. Carnegie tries to seduce Eli with some worldly pleasure provided by Solara (Mila Kunis), but he declines that offer also. Instead, he and Solara hold hands and pray.
The book Eli carries is very important. It is the only copy still around; all others were destroyed because people believe the book was the cause of the apocalypse. I wonder if there are other Eli's in other countries, all walking westward and carrying books that also survived. The movie does not dwell on philosophical digressions, but it does provide an intriguing counter-balancing theme: in the hands of Carnegie, the book will be used for selfish and evil purpose; he fancies himself a new Mussolini. In the hands of Eli, the book is the cornerstone to salvation for mankind. In our world, substitute certain books for the one Eli carries and the same paradigm of outcomes exist.
Solara joins Eli and both are soon pursued by Carnegie and his henchmen. Why is it the brainy guy always manages to command the brawnier, gun-toting military types in apocalyptic movies? The showdown occurs at a little white house, standing in the middle of nowhere, inhabited by a chatty elderly couple. They invite Eli and Solara in for tea, but Eli notices Martha (Frances de la Tour) has the kind of shakes that do not come from eating too many cucumber sandwiches. They are leaving just as Carnegie and his armed force arrive. Not much is left standing, but there is a surprise moment that almost seems to end the movie right here. A streak of angry lightning marks the moment.
There have been other movies touching on the profound effect books have on society, such as Francois Truffaut's Farenheit 451 and John Boorman's Zardoz, but none have blown up more things or shed more blood. This contrast between the deadly serious and the seriously deadly keeps The Book of Eli an engrossing and surprising experience ripe for interpretation.
Roger Ebert, in his review, points out there are WTF moments of impossibility and incomprehensibility. True; but isn't that what faith is all about? These moments provide The Book of Eli with an absurdity to rival grindhouse sensibility while still intensifying the fundamental emotion we feel. Believable or not, Washington's Eli is unperturbed in the face of adversity and made nearly invincible by his faith. Traits many of us envy, apocalypse or not.
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