Any post-apocalyptic film following The Road has big shoes to fill. Of course, by the same token, not every film can or should take the ulta-realistic, not to mention incredibly bleak, approach of the Cormac McCarthy novel. Sometimes you need to add a little bit of fun or a bad ass attitude to the grey, brown, and other washed out colors of the barren wasteland that is this post-tragedy landscape. That is exactly what happens here. The Hughes Brothers have crafted a film that is teeming with all manner of tough guy excess, cloaked in the style of the samurai film and much more substantive than I was expecting. Needless to say, I left the theater feeling satisfied and pleasantly surprised.
Denzel Washington is Eli, a lone walker who has been traversing the US for the 30 years since the war and everything changed. Frankly, I am not sure it would take that long for even someone as out of shape as me to do, but then we have to factor in the world's condition and how it has likely affected the ease with which we would be able to travel. In any case, the man has been moving west and is in the possession of a book, which he reads from every day.
The world we find him in is suitably gritty, dangerous, and barren. Everything seems to have been coated with ash. Broken down roads are littered with rusted cars and other debris. Eli keeps moving, a man with a purpose, a man believing he holds the key to the redemption of the human race.
When we first meet, it is through a series of sequences with no dialogue. We watch the man go through his routine of scavenging for clothes, obtaining food where he can, and taking care of his precious possessions, including the book and an iPod (which he has connected to a bulky old rechargeable battery and plays Al Green music). This leads to us following him down the road.
Eli is a good man, but he is also a dangerous one. He carries himself with dignity and seems to live by a moral code. However, be sure not to cross him, or the blade will come out and the results are surely not going to be pretty.
He makes his way to a nearby town in order to get his battery recharged, obtain some water, and continue along his westerly track. Unfortunately, he meets Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the swaggering bad guy of the film. This is where the trouble starts and some complexity begins. Yes, he is a bad guy, but he has some ideas that may be worth exploring in terms of bringing a level of civilization back. To that end, he is hunting for a book — book that is not supposed to exist, the book that Eli happens to have in his possession.
So what we have are two strong-willed men who believe in their chosen paths and who will not bend to the whims of the other. This leads to a series of fights, traded barbs, and a chase. This is what happens when you have an evil man who wishes to harness the power of the book for his own needs and a man who believes he is on a quest of faith.
On the surface, this is a very simple story of a lone man on a mission and the evil men with guns who wish to stop him from achieving his goal. So, on that level, the film is right in line with what I was expecting. Fortunately, the Hughes Brothers and screenwriter Gary Whitta (with his first produced screenplay) were not content to merely create a post-apocalyptic, bad ass samurai movie. Oh no. While the movie is entertaining enough as is, they have given our characters an unexpected depth and nuance. Yes, that's right. There is more to the characters than meets the eye. Just watch as Washington's Eli deals with what he steadfastly believes and the ordeal that results because of it. Look at Oldman's Carnegie and what he is trying to do — is he purely evil? I don't think so.
The seemingly simple narrative allows whatever other meaning to be discovered and interpreted by the audience. If you watch long enough the details will reveal themselves to you, thus making this world more fully fledged than anticipated.
The comparisons to The Road are inevitable. They set themselves in a similar time frame yet they have very different approaches and very different results. The Road is a more important film, but The Book of Eli is the one I am more likely to watch over and over again. While the former hits you in the solar plexus and leaves you emotionally distraught, the latter will draw you into the action with its iconic titular character, surprise you with its depth, and leave you wanting more.
While the story and performances are very good, there is also no denying the visual style that the Hughes Brothers bring to the table. It needs to be said that we need to see more regular work from these two. This is the first film from them since 2001's From Hell. This film was shot beautifully. There is so much detail in every frame that you almost feel a part of it. I felt guilty drinking my bottle of water with Eli and the rest just trying to get a few drops.
Their style is never more evident than during a dynamic shoot-out at an isolated home in the desert. I do not want to give it away except to say it is a stunning piece of visceral film making. What the Hughes Brothers have done here is nothing short of amazing. To take that a step further, the fight sequences are some of the better ones I've seen in a Hollywood film. They are not all chopped up and shot in close quarters, they have longer takes from more of a distance allowing us to see what is going on, making them much more impressive.
Bottom line. This movie was a nice surprise. It has some great fights and an incredible shootout, but it also has interesting characters that are morally complex individuals. It is a world more realized than I would have thought. On top of all that, it all builds to an ending I sort of saw coming but was still surprised by (not to mention it did not match my prediction). See this movie, you will likely be surprised by what you find.