The Book of Eli wants you to know that it is a very, very serious movie. The latest movie from Albert and Allen Hughes is about a dystopian future where dust settles on everything like fine ash, where people are illiterate and books are worth almost as much as water, where women are chattel to be raped and traded, where religion is dead and chaos reigns. (Yes, chaos reigns!) And it's where Eli (Denzel Washington) takes 30 years to walk cross-country, brutally cutting down those in his holy path that seek to harm him or, more importantly, his book.
If you don't think that its empty highways, burned-out cars, and cannibal gangs are serious enough, well, you will be sh*t out of luck keeping a straight face when Eli uses a bow and arrow to kill a Sphinx cat (you know, the bald ones that look like Nosferatu) for dinner. Later, after he's cooked dinner, he offers a piece to a rat, cooing, "You'll like it... it's caaaaat." He settles in for the night listening to an old, battered iPod, and in the morning, he cleans himself with old KFC wet naps. Later, he passes a Busch beer truck. This is our legacy - over-bred cats that require sunscreen yet live through the life-changing event survivors call The Flash and the refuse brand name products.
It wouldn't be so hard to like The Book of Eli if it wasn't trying to be so deadly serious, but there's the rub. Eli's book is probably the last of its kind; some thought it caused most of the problems in the world and burned almost all of them, but Eli and one other man thinks it contains all the answers we need. Pretty heady stuff. At the same time, how can we take it seriously when Eli literally smells out a gang of hijackers, commenting that it's one of the perks of the lack of water and soap, and then fights them all with a giant sword, with gouts of blood spewing into the air from their hacked-off limbs?
There are some moments of levity on purpose - one specific scene shows some of the gang members bringing back books to their boss, Carnegie (Gary Oldman), and among them are O magazines and The Da Vinci Code, which Carnegie tosses away in frustration - but mostly we're subjected to Eli being stoic and righteous, even if that means turning his head when others need help, muttering, "Stay on the path. It's not your concern. Stay on the path. It's not your concern." Or getting into a bar fight over some dude's cat. Yes, another cat. I was beginning to think that it was some sort of bizarre District 9-style quirk of the future, but thankfully cats are not currency or concubines in Eli. (Earlier, Carnegie had told the same gang member that he and his men were allowed all the p*ssy they wanted so when I saw him in the bar with a cat later... What?)
Carnegie, the self-made leader of a cobbled-together town, is perhaps the only other man in the world who values the book as much as Eli, although for different reasons. It reminds him of the old days, sure, and he studied it as a child, but he's more concerned in using it to bend the people of his town to his will. Oldman has the barest Southern accent, and his attempts to work himself into a fervor about the book recalls Billy Swaggert or Robert Tilton, but the actor is just phoning it in, barely rousing himself to chew the scenery convincingly. Even Carnegie's explosions of violence towards his wife Claudia (Jennifer Beals) and her daughter Solara (Mila Kunis) are hollow.
Kunis provides one of the best performances in the movie as a smart little badass who wants to leave Carnegie in the dust and learn from Eli and his book. The other treat is a cameo by Tom Waits, who plays a local fix-it man that barters with Eli for services; he rejects Eli's offer of cat oil - it's good for dry skin, apparently - and asks if Eli has Chapstick instead.
Besides the lackluster performances by two otherwise excellent leading men, The Book of Eli also requires some rather large leaps of faith by the viewer; inconsistencies abound, the plot devices are the kind of things writing teachers warn you about, and despite the enormous time and money spent on CG, there's at least one scene that is so obviously green-screened it made me sad. What could have been complex characters are rendered flat and even funny by laborious dialogue that causes the viewer to overlook the bigger ideas the Hughes brothers were trying to express - the struggle of good people in dire situations, the overindulgence of people today, the lack of gratefulness or grace, all of which were explored more subtly in The Road. (That said, I didn't think The Road was entirely successful, either.)
In Meredith Woerner's great interview with the Hughes brothers, she asked, "In the movie they state that all the Bibles, and a lot of other religious texts, were burned after the 'last great war,' because many people believed that religion was a catalyst for this war. If religion didn't help the people of Eli's fictional past, why do you guys as filmmakers think it will help their future?" Albert replied, "You have some very deep, profound psychological questions there! You're applying logic to something that there is no logic in. That's part of my struggle. If you apply logic to a faith-based religion - any of them - it will slowly start to fall apart."
Unfortunately, so does The Book of Eli. At least it looks good doing it.