When we first meet Eli (Denzel Washington), he is sending an arrow into a cat who’s trying to eat from a fallen human body in a grey, dead forest. It’s a while before he gets to roast the cat and eat it, giving us time to see Eli’s world and get to know him. He’s not a too distant cousin to Clint Eastwood in his silent-man spaghetti western days. A loner who is not tempted by women, a quick-draw shooter who never misses, and a martial arts master who can easily kill a dozen men in a variety of bloody ballet moves. Every night he sharpens his knives with a stone and then unwraps a precious book from his backpack and reads it.
Eli doesn’t scout the surroundings with binoculars, he listens and smells and feels the ground and what he learns seems to be the same scenes he’s been facing for the past 30 years on his solitary journey to the west coast. The planet was wiped out by some cataclysm. Like the world in The Road, the plants and animals are all gone. Most of the people too. Many of those who survive suffer from blindness. Criminals wander the countryside, killlng and eating whomever they can find. The bleak imagery of the vast gloomy vistas and the decrepit interiors is a production marvel, breathtakingly beautiful in its relentless, lifeless ugliness.
In this desolate landscape of the New Mexico desert, the man who has fresh water is king. And that would be a man named Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who has become the tyrant of a small town by knowing where the underground springs are. He abuses his blind companion, Claudia (Jennifer Beal), and uses her sensual teenage daughter Solara (Mila Kunis) as bait to keep his violent cronies under his command. Carnegie, unlike the younger survivors, is old enough to remember some of the finer things of the way the world used to be, including the distinct pleasure of being able to read. He is obsessed with finding a particular book and sends out brigands to search for it. But none of the scavenged books is the one he wants–the book whose words will move people to his will and allow him to expand his empire.
Denzel Washington is noble and brave, laconic and mysterious, a gentleman to the ladies and a terror to the bad guys. Such a part is risky because it veers dangerously close to parody. What makes such a hero believable is a worthy villain and Oldman delivers. He’s brutish and cruel of course, but he’s also eloquent and satiric, qualities that elevate him beyond the mere gangster and put him into the league of memorable villains like Alan Rickman’s European terrorist, Hans Gruber, in Die Hard. Such a villain gives credence to our hero and makes rooting for him all the more satisfying. When the villain steals Eli’s precious book and discovers what it really is, we feel no guilt for his bitter disappointment.
The best post-Apocalyptic movies always have a spiritual theme, portrayed in varying degrees of subtlety. The Book of Eli makes that theme hit on the nose, and it will depend on your religious leanings if the theme will make you feel righteous or bother you. In any case, the surprise ending goes beyond religiosity to make the story a universal one.
It’s been nine years since twin brothers Albert and Allen Hughes had a theatrical release (From Hell, 2001). The Book of Eli is such a compelling and well-made movie that we can only eagerly hope that the brothers’ next outing comes with all due speed.