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Friday, Jan. 15, 2010

The Book of Eli

Another Road Taken

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With the many problems facing the world, a strong undercurrent of apocalyptic anxiety runs through contemporary culture. The Road is the recent masterpiece of apocalypse cinema and it’s a hard trail to follow for TheBook of Eli. The landscape of both movies is strikingly similar. Like The Road, the new film by directors Albert and Allen Hughes (From Hell) follows a man on a journey across a dark land ruined by global catastrophe, its forests turned to stumps, its prairies to ash and the sky into a gray shroud against the fitful sun. Millions have perished and civilization has crumbled. Roaming the ruins are Mad Max gangs, raping and pillaging, killing the frightened survivors pushing their few possessions in shopping carts down empty, rubble-strewn highways.

The heroic protagonist, Eli, is played by Denzel Washington, implacable under his watchman’s cap and dark glasses, yet moved to kindness by the hunger of one of the smallest creatures, a mouse. He shares a morsel of his skimpy food with the hungry rodent in a ruined home where he spends the night. Unlike the wanderer along TheRoad, played by Viggo Mortensen, Eli is more than an ordinary man. He is an inexplicable superhero with incredible martial arts swordsmanship. Eli can decimate a platoon of goons with nothing but kicks and a sharp blade. Bullets bounce off him—but not always in a patchy script that reaches for profundity and sometimes comes up short.

In The Road, Mortensen traveled with his son, but in TheBook of Eli, Washington’s only companion is a King James Bible, oversize and bound in black, a treasure in a world where reading has largely been forgotten. When Eli wanders into a town that half resembles Tombstone or Dodge, he discovers that its tin pot ruler, Carnegie (Gary Oldman), is also a voracious reader.

Seated behind the desk of his tattered art deco office in the decayed bijou that serves as his headquarters, Carnegie is studying a biography of Mussolini. The life of the great dictator might be inspiring, but the book Carnegie desires most is the Bible. He’s not seeking the spiritual sustenance Eli found in its pages but a source of power. As with many princes who masked their avarice in the guise of religion, he hopes to use the text for his own ends.

The screenplay has moments that are implausible and senseless within the film’s fictional universe, the sort of glitches that can intrude when too many hidden hands tinker with the story. However, the movie is elevated by the rivalry for the book, representing the good and bad uses of religion and the power of the written word, by opposing characters embodied by a great pair of actors. Washington endows Eli with the soft inner light of dignity and conviction in what he sees as a God-given mission to carry the book the west, exact destination unknown. As the villain, Oldman dominates many of the film’s memorable scenes. Carnegie is a tightly wound psychopath, a fulminating Captain Ahab limping rapidly on crutches after being shot in the leg by Eli in a firefight three-quarters through the movie. The supporting cast is also effective. Tom Waits brings wary eccentricity to his role as a shopkeeper in Carnegie’s town and Mila Kunis is believable as the town girl who becomes intrigued by Eli’s quest.