The Book of Eli (8/10)

Post-apocalyptic films are a dime a dozen. It seems every other filmmaker is only interested in either the world being destroyed or the world already having been destroyed. That being said, “The Book of Eli” is a surprisingly heartfelt and effective tale about a world ravaged by some kind of war that “tore a hole in the sky” and through which a lone man on a quest trudges, carrying a book of some significance that nobody but he is allowed to read.

The Hughes Brothers, who directed “From Hell” and “Dead Presidents,” have topped anything else they have done with “Eli.” With a sort of dramatic sensitivity they capture the dead, hot, arid feel of this post-apocalyptic America – rusted out cars housing the bones of the long-dead, city-wide craters gaping in the ground, muddy blotchy brown snow cascading from the sky thickly thanks to a nuclear winter. The cinematography is sparse and brilliantly executed, and you’ll be hooked from the very first scene – where our hero, Denzel Washington, spears a sickly thin cat for his dinner.

Denzel is Eli, a lone wanderer bound to bear the book in his backpack so a safe haven somewhere out “west.” He rarely speaks, always choosing his words carefully, and watch that hand of yours if it comes anywhere too close to his person. Eli knows a zany kind of martial art and is a quick draw with his many guns, and he never hesitates to use them if he or the book is threatened. When he encounters the power-hungry mayor of a small settlement in the midst of the infinite desert, Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a man who is bent on recovering the book from Eli’s clutches (“It’s not a book! It’s a WEAPON!”), he must escape with both his life and the book intact if he is to fulfill his mission.

Naturally, he’ll have to go through a few zippy action scenes along the way, and none of these disappoint. Each of them is filmed uniquely and with a flair for style; to pick just one example, during one fight against five hijackers, the entire fight is silhouetted against the aridly dry sky, so that you see shadows playing it out and gushes of something liquid and black spouting from limbs. And despite showcasing many brutal scenes, “Eli” never feels sadistic or especially glorifying of the violence, and Washington’s performance is a huge part of this.

This may be one of the few Denzel movies where you aren’t continually reminded of the fact that he’s Denzel. He plays Eli as a quiet, muted, and respectful type of guy, and from the very first few quiet scenes of the movie you really get a feel for him and want him to succeed on his quest. Gary Oldman is, of course, brilliant as Carnegie, the bloodthirsty knowledge-hungry tyrant of the small town, and his performance is spittle-flying riveting with palpable desperation. And the interactions between these two lead to powerful and illuminating commentaries on religion and how it can be used for absolute controlling, evil power or incredible good.

And the great thing about “The Book of Eli” is that it excels at both of what it’s good at – a kickass dystopian vision of a post-apocalyptic future with plenty of juicy action scenes that are filmed with style and zing, and a morality tale about the power of words and the capacity of religion to do great evil or great good. It’s not often you see such supposedly disparate elements woven together with such attention to detail and creativity, and it puts “Eli” a cut above most other movies of its ilk. And it’s especially rare to see such an excellent film in theatres in January – inspiring, thoughtful, violent, “Eli” is a must for any sci-fi or post-apocalyptic fans, and it’s doubtful you’ll ever see much like it again.

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