Directors The Hughes Brothers take on the bold and bizarre task of packaging a Christian parable in the form of a gung-ho apocalyptic action flick in The Book of Eli, the grim story of a vagabond who dedicates his life to lugging around a leather bound copy of a King James Bible and defending it at any cost.
Partial points for the sheer audacity of the film’s premise, although audiences will be sobered to discover the resulting experience is a sluggish cross country walk fest in which we follow the dusty footprints of Denzel Washington in full tilt holier than thou mode.
Spotted with guns, fisticuffs and “don’t mess with me” grimaces from its steely-eyed star, The Book of Eli offers an intriguingly literal interpretation of “bible basher.” And though it’s too dull to be considered an interesting failure, the film undoubtedly occupies a different turf than your average Hollywood action pic.
Set in a barren future world decimated by nuclear war, Eli (Washington) wanders across America, heading west towards what he hopes will be a new civilisation. Like the father/son duo in John Hillcoat’s The Road, Eli does his best to avoid cannibals and thieves but rubs up against both. He reads from The Good Book every day; it is Earth’s last remaining copy. After the war, you see, many blamed Christianity and every Bible bar one was tracked down and burnt, an ecstatic salivating-from-the-mouth Richard Dawkins presumably leading the charge.
In a convenient dramatic connection, small town syndicate boss Carnegie (Gary Oldman) whittles away his time searching for a copy, though his goons return slightly less impressive feats of literature (i.e. The Da Vinci Code). Strangely, he wants to use the Bible to expand his power base. Eli walks into his town, minces his goons, and as they say this place ain’t big enough for the two of them. Eli splits and Carnegie follows, their missions at stark opposite ends: one to keep a Bible, the other to steal it.
The story frequently resets itself to the same basic coordinates: man walking, others following. The plotline is crudely simplistic, with a bunch of competently staged but unspectacular action scenes thrown in as pill sweeteners.
Washington’s big-headed performance is loaded with self-righteousness, his high and mighty mannerisms giving the character unintended vanity and more than a whiff of narcissism. As soon as the audience cottons on to the idea that Eli will be protected via some kind of divine force field – this is a man who clearly has friends in the right places, and we learn this very early on – the excitement fizzles away. Eli cannot be harmed and he knows it; the script loves him almost as much as he loves himself.
Gary Oldman makes a decent villain: creepy, determined, dastardly and ostentatious. However he looks more than a bit silly here, a good portion of his screen time spent hobbling after Eli with a bung leg. It’s intriguing that Carnegie considers the Bible to be such an extraordinary weapon, but this tangent is under developed and his desire to get the book poorly explained.
The cinematography by Don Burgess has similarities to The Road and last year’s Australian outback cannibal film Van Diemen’s Land. It looks bleached and anaemic, as if the film has spent too long out in the sun. However the stark photography and flashy (but not excessively indulgent) editing often pull off a stylish combo of surface values. The look of The Book of Eli actually has a lot of character – more, in fact, than any of the characters.
The story’s conclusion attempts the kind of profound analogy that the film’s target multiplex demographic obviously won’t want any part in. Puzzling this one out is part of the experience – again, partial points for sheer audacity – but it feels crazy and pointless, like going to church and listening to the sermon of a madman.
The Book of Eli’s Australian theatrical release date: April 15, 2010.