As the well-wrought, powerfully acted, post apocalypse drama “The Book of Eli”, directed by Albert Hughes, written by Gary Whitta, plays itself out, a couple of nagging questions bother me: Why did it take Eli (Denzel Washington) thirty years to walk from anywhere in the United States to San Francisco? How did he manage to survive a point blank gut shot and then survive to do something that I can’t reveal here without demolishing the hoped-for surprise but which is impressive and lame at the same time? And how does Hughes expect us to feel anything but cheated at that cheap – not clever – trick that renders Eli’s book useless to the person who wants it most?
Plot-holes aside, the look of the movie is captivating, monumental perhaps. It adequately describes the crusade that Eli undertakes, somewhere “west”, at the behest of an inner voice, across a country that long, long before had been ravaged, not just by a “bright flash”, the same effect that destroyed the world in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”, but a subsequent war. He carries a book from which he reads every day – it’s a Bible; this intelligence won’t reveal anything that kills the story. And, with murderous muscular Christianity he absolutely slaughters in the most horrific ways imaginable – several scenes resemble what happened to Saint John the Baptist, rendered with the drama of a Renaissance painting - anyone who wants to take it away from him. With relentless pacing the movie tells how Carnegie (Gary Oldman) manages to procure the Bible for a purpose that would make fundamentalists howl with righteous glee and how Eli, who should have been dead, manages to make it to, of all places, Alcatraz Island, and thus fulfill his destiny.
For almost two hours the movie engages us, particularly with the visuals of Eli trekking through the barren landscape. The wretchedness of the world is powerful and apparent; and it’s not too far from what we imagine could possibly happen when religious zeal, combined with good old human foibles combusts with murderous technology to result in a devastated world ripe for a second coming or, in secular terms, a clean slate from which to rebuild the world according to a spiritual blueprint. Many of the scenes are downright gruesome – Washington is not a Christ-like twig but a mild mannered, pious but inadvertent action hero that, in this world, at this time, makes perfect sense. The movie does have the potential to be spectacular – a story that is biblical in scope, monumental in conception and enactment – but that, alas, is paltry at key moments, at times thoroughly unbelievable and unconvincing.
Hughes struck a perfect pitch with his production but he got hamstrung with a few script glitches. Washington’s performance is stellar; it’s got gravity and solemnity, you really do buy into his need to fulfill the quest on which he’s set out. You really do believe he is a chosen one, the one to jumpstart a fallen civilization – ours, his – that’s gone horribly awry. Oldman is a fine choice for the man who needs that Bible for unholy purposes, purposes that quite possibly led to the world’s devastation in the first place. And Mila Kunis’s Solara captures the spirit of one who knows nothing of what happened to the world in which she lives but who, being a generation younger than Washington, just might be the one to take the Word, for which Eli gave his life, and do something constructive with it.