The Book of Eli

Movie Information

The Story: A lone traveler wanders through the wastes of post-Apocalyptic America, carrying the only remaining Bible. The Lowdown: A magnificently stylish, clever — and bloody — actioner pushed forward by its own ideas and sense of ambition.
Score:
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Genre: Post-Apocalyptic Action
Director: The Hughes Brothers (From Hell)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals
Rated: R

It’s been nine years since the Albert and Allen Hughes released a film, the effortlessly stylish From Hell, one of the best — and most overlooked — horror films to come out last decade. But now, after such a long hiatus, the question arises as to whether their latest outing, The Book of Eli, was worth the wait. And I can say unequivocally, for those who are fans of the kind assured, intelligent, sleek, bold filmmaking on display here, that the answer is an incontrovertible yes.

It’s a bit of a shame that the film has come on the heels of John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009), with its dire, sullen look at surviving in a post-apocalyptic landscape, which didn’t exactly set the box office on fire. Don’t be fooled, however — both films are very different approaches to a well-worn genre. Sure, both The Road and The Book of Eli deal with characters roaming through the remains of a dreary, collapsed civilization, skirting cannibals and gangs of bandits. Where the two films diverge is in their approach. Where The Road is a simple, sparse story of survival, The Book of Eli is a bit more ambitious in scope, all the while being more entertaining (and if there’s ever any question, Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour showing up as gun-toting cannibals should put a rest to that).

Stripped away of everything, Eli is an action movie — a very bloody one at that — with a large debt paid to Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns. Denzel Washington plays Eli, a lone traveler (and movie badass) who’s heading West through the barren, destroyed, deadly remains of America, carrying the country’s last remaining Bible in his backpack. It seems that whatever war caused all this destruction was ultimately blamed on religion, causing the destruction of almost every Bible by mobs of angry survivors. Since this is presumably the last Bible around, it makes it a hot commodity for Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a town boss — and one of the few remaining literate people around who remember a time before the war — who sees the book as “a weapon aimed at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate.”

The bulk of the plot revolves around Carnegie and his gang attempting to capture Eli and his book, but there’s more to the movie than this. Some critics have criticized the film for its religious bent (never mind that Albert Hughes is a professed atheist), with one review going as far as to condemn Eli for its “fundamentalist message,” but this view is shortsighted. Yes, the film is about religion, but more about the upsides found in its purest form — and figuring out what religion means to you, not what others say it is — as opposed to its dangers when perverted. In this sense the movie is a much more persuasive, effective promotion of religion than, for instance, the simplistic proselytizing of Fireproof (2008), while never being preachy.

It certainly helps that the Hughes Brothers are the ones saying it, since they manage to coat the film in effortless style. While it’s a relief to find directors who can shoot not only cohesive, but creative, action scenes (one of which would fit in quite well with Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 Children of Men) that never skimp on the action, the film is filled with fits of snazzy, genuine filmmaking that always feel right, squeezing the most possible out of the film’s sepia-toned hues.

There’s an astonishing level of attention to the most minute details. At first glance, the film’s big (and very clever) twist appears to cause the entire movie to unravel. That is until closer examination shows it’s been very subtly set up from the onset, while also fitting snugly within the film’s internal logic (not to mention — without spoiling anything — a more universal movie logic that the basic idea shares with at least a couple of films). At the same time, the Hughes Brothers and first-time screenwriter Gary Whitta are all smart enough to realize that the twist isn’t the point of the movie, just a nice adornment. It’s a final touch to this cinematic rarity — a slick, intelligent film made by people with a sense of vision, but with enough brains to never forget it’s a movie that’s here to entertain. Rated R for some brutal violence and language.

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20 thoughts on “The Book of Eli

  1. TonyRo

    Poorly paced…weak and generic script that demeans viewers intelligence….Mila Kunis…..there was so much about this movie that I hated. The little plot twist at the end felt like something out of a bad Shyamalan script. The only good things were Denzel Washington and Tom Waits.

    C’mon….5 stars? Really? With that cookie cutter script and even worse, that awful ending….3 stars at best.

  2. GoodGrief

    I think it was fantastic. The texture of the film, the cinematography, and of course the action. Sure, Denzel carried much of it. It becomes more of an experience than just a film if you really seek to understand the whole point instead of trying to dissect it’s every turn. I agree with you Justin, particularly your final paragraph. Great film.

  3. Chad Nesbitt

    Justin is dead on. This was a great film. There were so many details to this film that I must see it again.

    Loved the musical score. Its sound carried you through the movie with a huge impact for a dazzling ending. The synthesizers in the background kind of reminded me of Blade Runners score.

    Hollywood finally made a movie that made faith in ones religion cool instead of ridiculed.
    Producers Joel Silver and Denzel Washington (Jewish and Christian conservatives) picked the right directors and screenwriter. They have the talent! One may be an atheist, but after directing this movie one would bet he has changed his mind.

    After the movie, there were people beside me crying. They to were happy to see a powerful movie about ones faith and good triumphing evil. Way to go Silver and Washington!

  4. Justin Souther

    One may be an atheist, but after directing this movie one would bet he has changed his mind.

    Well, reading his comments in Vanity Fair would lead me to believe he hasn’t changed his mind.

    And I still feel like this movie is less about Christianity than it is religion or faith or even spirituality in general, since one of the last images we get is of a Bible getting placed between copies of the Torah and the Qur’an.

  5. Billy Earnest

    I am a movie lover, & I’m usually a real push-over as a movie critic….BUT….I think this movie is AWFUL!!!!
    A waste of money & time. I can only think of a few times I’ve ever said that about a movie. Denzel, what are you doing????? I was interested in seeing what Cranky Hanke’s opinion would be, & instead read this one……WOW! Lame. I would give it zero stars…..literally….god-awful!
    Billy Earnest

  6. mike

    I wouldn’t go so far as to rate this a five-star movie but it was still very well done. But then I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic, samurai and man-on-a-mission type flicks and this one combined them all into one awesome, pulpy, bleached-out fever dream that even the Lord Humungus himself would be proud of.

    I’ll give the Hughes brothers a pass for the muddled religious aspect to the film because I’m of the opinion it wasn’t meant to be as much preachy as it was cautionary. If they had tightened up that aspect of the plot there would probably be far fewer dismissive opinions than seem to be floating about the internetz.

  7. I’m of two minds on whether to see this one. On the one hand, I found FROM HELL dull and silly, and contains perhaps the only Johnny Depp performance that does nothing for me. On the other hand, this has Michael Gambon, Frances de la Tour and Tom Waits in it. So it’s a toss up.

  8. Sean Williams

    Yes, the film is about religion, but more about the upsides found in its purest form — and figuring out what religion means to you, not what others say it is

    The message about the power of individual faith dovetails nicely with the message about the power of literacy.

    Anyways, I say we need fewer postapocalyptic movies and more dying earth movies.

  9. Josh

    I really enjoyed From Hell. I watched it by myself years after it was released and then later talked to my friends about it. It was conclusive that everyone but myself thought the movie was awful. I didn’t see how, perhaps I’m just a sucker for eye candy because the film itself was gorgeous visually, as macabre as the subject was. When I saw the trailer for Eli I thought, O God what a rip-off of The Road, but this review convinced me to push that thought aside. Stylistically how does Eli compare/contrast with From Hell.

  10. Ken Hanke

    I was interested in seeing what Cranky Hanke’s opinion would be, & instead read this one……WOW! Lame.

    You seem to be presupposing that my opinion would have been radically different, which is not necessarily true. In fact, after having worked with Justin for some considerable time, I’ve rarely found our views to be as wildly at odds as would be required to suit your desires. If anything, I tend to be a bit more enthusiastic about a lot of movies than he is. The only time I can think of where the reverse was true was Adventureland — and that had less to do with the quality of the movie, I think, than with my inability to warm to Kristen Stewart.

  11. Ken Hanke

    On the one hand, I found FROM HELL dull and silly

    That surprises me. We’re occasionally not exactly in accord, but this is like 180 degrees opposite.

  12. That surprises me. We’re occasionally not exactly in accord, but this is like 180 degrees opposite.
    It surprised me too. I sought it out after reading your positive review, expecting to love it. After all, it combined Victorian gothic, Ian Richardson, Jack the Ripper, Johnny Depp and Alan Moore. What’s not to like there?
    And then I watched it and pretty much hated it. I just felt this overwhelming sense of daftness about the whole picture, and Depp’s accent seemed an obvious, and unintentionally amusing, put on. On the other hand, I haven’t seen it since I was 13, so it may be due for a reappraisal.
    I’ve decided to take in THE BOOK OF ELI also. I find the allure of a Tom Waits performance too strong to pass up.

  13. Billy Earnest

    After reading Cranky Hanke’s comment above, I still wish I could have read a actual ‘review’ by him…..not comments to comments. I do read mountian xpress revies on a regular basis, but I don’t base my ‘seeing a movie or not’ on any critics opinions. I just usually get a kick out of his words. When I read ‘opinions & reviews’ of this movie, by critics & non-critics, it seems that most folks who are crazy about this movie have a very common thread. Personally, I thought it was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.

  14. davidf

    The fact that this has polarized so many viewers (45% on Rotten Tomatoes!) makes me that much more excited to see it tonight.

  15. Dread P. Roberts

    I was interested in seeing what Cranky Hanke’s opinion would be, & instead read this one……WOW! Lame.

    First off, that’s just plain unnecessarily rude. Take into consideration the fact that you aren’t just offending Justin, but also the judgment of Ken, as well as the Mountain Xpress as a whole. They trust Justin’s critical, professional opinion. Secondly,
    Souther is a very respectable writer who constructs well written reviews, despite whether you agree with the inherent OPINIONS, or not. It’s usually hard for me to discern who’s actually writing the review without looking at the name attached. Based on how this review is written, would you really have been able to tell a difference without looking at the name? You shouldn’t insult ones credentials, based on your lack of agreement. It’s so annoying to read that kind of stuff.

    It surprised me too. I sought it out after reading your positive review, expecting to love it. / On the other hand, I haven’t seen it since I was 13, so it may be due for a reappraisal.

    One of the movies that I really disagreed with Ken about was The Ninth Gate. But, oddly enough, when I re-watched it a few weeks ago, my opinion actually did change from initially hating it (mostly just the ending) to really enjoying it. It had been nearly a decade since my first (and only) viewing, and it’s amazing what kind of an effect that can have. Things change, opinions change. Lots of factors come into play – age, perspective, more of a familiarity with such things as the director (having seen several older Roman Polanski films, that I hadn’t seen before, in the last decade), etc.. In my case, I can’t help but wonder if lowered expectations, and knowing what I was getting into (especially with the ending), really made a big difference. It’s also funny that it was one of the few Johnny Depp movies that I initially didn’t like. Anyways, I’m not saying that you’ll like From Hell anymore on a second viewing, but I’d recommend trying it, because you might just be as surprised as I was with The Ninth Gate.

  16. Tonberry

    The moment this movie had my full attention is the first time you hear that guitar sound at the beginning. It gave me chills. The soundtrack to this movie is about perfect with the movies look. I was quite immersed with the whole thing, and the one thing that took me out of it in spots, was Mila Kunis. I don’t think she is a bad actress or ruins this film, I just felt she was a little out of place. Before you see her, our hero goes into this old beat up bar filled with grimy bandits, and when she pops up in the background I was like “Oh, it’s the girl from That 70’s show.” I feel like I am nitpicking here, because nothing is really wrong with her performance, I just probably would have gone with a no name actress.

    However, if you’re into movies because of the stars, Denzil Washington and Gary Oldman are at their finest here, and play so well off of each other. The action scenes pop and sizzle, some of the best I’ve seen since “District 9.” This movie was quite the surprise, and left me with the after movie glow. Not many films have this affect on me, but I can add “The Book of Eli” to that list.

  17. davidf

    I saw it tonight, and now I want to see it again, just to make sure it was as well put together as I think it was. The film almost betrays itself, because there are things on this first viewing that bugged me throughout (little details of the plot that seemed illogical – you might call them ‘goofs’), and at times those thoughts threatened to stand in the way of my enjoyment of the story. By the end, though, all of those apparent goofs seemed to be ironed out by the wrap-up. Because of this, I think this movie will be vastly more enjoyable the second time I watch it. Justin, I’m curious how your second viewing compared to your first in this respect.
    Also, my only criticism of your review is that I think you gave a little too much away. However obvious the identity of the book Eli was carrying may have been from the advertising, I don’t think you should have named it explicitly in the story summary for this article. The film holds off naming it for a good while, and I think it would be better for the viewer to discover that when the story called for it. Other than that, excellent review. I may not have ventured to see it on the big screen without your encouragement. Thank you!

  18. davidf

    Billy Earnest wrote: “When I read ‘opinions & reviews’ of this movie, by critics & non-critics, it seems that most folks who are crazy about this movie have a very common thread.”

    I’m so curious what this “very common thread” your seeing is, Billy. I can’t seem to identify any unifying factor other than the fact that we all enjoyed the same film. Perhaps you could enlighten us as to what else we have in common?

  19. Ken Hanke

    On the other hand, I haven’t seen it since I was 13, so it may be due for a reappraisal.

    A personal thing — and I know you were a lot more mature 13-year-old than I ever was (that is sincere and not smart-assery) — but I can think of nothing that I’d leave at my assessment of it at 13.

  20. Justin Souther

    Justin, I’m curious how your second viewing compared to your first in this respect.

    I think you’ll be surprised how much — and how intricately — the end of the movie is being set-up from the beginning of the film. There are tons of subtle details throughout — many of which you probably didn’t even notice the first time around — that actually made my second viewing of the film all the more impressive. I can’t say they cover every hole, but within the film’s own logic, it works.

    The film holds off naming it for a good while, and I think it would be better for the viewer to discover that when the story called for it.

    That’s fair I think, though in my defense I did feel the film’s advertising made it pretty obvious to begin with. But at the same time, I understand where you’re coming from. One of the toughest things for me when reviewing movies is deciding which details as far as plot should make their way into the review.

    I may not have ventured to see it on the big screen without your encouragement. Thank you!

    You’re welcome, and thank you. I’d say — and I’m sure Ken would agree — that what keeps us reviewing all the junk we usually get stuck watching is the occasional chance to turn people on to things we find exceptional. So that’s a very high compliment to get.

    An acquaintance of mine actual took the time to tell me — based solely on the trailer — that there’s no way Eli could be a five star film. Though after a little bit of conversation, I think I convinced her to check it out and see for herself.

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