The Book of Eli: Deliver us from January

The Book of Eli, the newest movie from ghetto (filmmaking) celebrities the Hughes Brothers, is better than any January film has any right to be.  As you are probably well aware, January is generally understood as a cinematic graveyard, a time during which all films theatrically released are expected to die short, unpleasant deaths.  This is due to the fact that Oscar gambits come to a close at the beginning of the New Year – any film released after December 31st won’t be considered for the previous year’s Academy Awards.  Hence, though Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones wasn’t released nationally until January 15th, it played in Los Angeles and New York starting in mid-December, so that it could hopefully garner the desirable Oscar nod.  Those films that are released theatrically on a national scale during January are expected to be entirely off the cultural and Academy radar by the time the next round of nominations are picked. 

Therefore, in January, we get dreck like Eric Valette’s 2008 tragic J-horror adaptation One Missed Call and Joe Berlinger’s 2000 garbage dump Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.  These are films that, quite simply, suck; they suck the money out of your pockets, the air out of the theater, the talent out of their casts, and unbridled passion out of cinematic storytelling.   And while my colleague Tim Parfitt quite enjoyed last week’s Daybreakers, I found it to fail pretty much thoroughly, not only as a quality film, but also as even a B-grade vampire picture.  My standards weren’t high, but the Spierig Brothers’ bloodsucking movie took itself way too seriously to be any fun. 

And though I love the idea of homicidal angels, and though I love Paul Bettany, I can’t really see next week’s Scott Stewart-helmed Legion being any good (the angel-monsters look even more awful than the “vampires” in I Am Legend, and Dennis Quaid should no longer be allowed to appear in motion pictures).  I’ll watch Gregory Widen’s excellent 1995 film The Prophecy, starring Christopher Walken as the vengeful angel Gabriel, to fulfill my need for spiritualized death from on high, thank you kindly.  And yet, suddenly, out of the rote sub-genre of the post-apocalypse and the fairly predictable career choices of star Denzel Washington, comes Eli, a cinematic godsend, at least for the generally unpalatable month we’re currently in, a film that challenges both the January-dumping ground theory and my own abundantly evident cynicism. 

Why?  Well, first of all, The Book of Eli is an Allen and Albert Hughes film, and, as such, it is quite the visually sumptuous treat.  The story, concerning a wanderer named Eli who unflaggingly heads West, hoping to find a providence absent in the desert hell through which he travels, is supported by convincing set pieces and visuals that empower the narrative’s telling and allow the viewer entry into the film’s sparse, dusty and suffocating world.  While the character Eli carries little more than a Bible, a first-generation iPod, and a slew of nasty weapons on his journey, The Book of Eli carries a rather unremarkable chronicle to fairly impressive heights through a striking visual clout and a sure hand operating both the cameras that shot and the computers that edited the film. 

Such visual confidence is nothing new to the film’s directors.  Certainly, there are flaws in the Brothers’ 1993 gangbanging Menace II Society, the film that made their collective name, and even more off-kilter elements in their 2001 comic book adaptation From Hell, yet the Hughes Brothers can always be depended upon to tell stories well, padding the narrative’s uninspired moments with intriguing cinematography that makes weak elements in their screenplays gripping and arresting onscreen.  One could teach a class on shot composition using both of their former films – the slow camera movements of Menace and the shocking reveals of From Hell tell as much of the films’ stories as do the voiceovers and dialogue in each respective movie.

The Brothers’ penchant for adept visual storytelling is on full display in Eli – the opening shot, calculatedly revealing Denzel Washington’s dietary interest in an emaciated feline, is so well-structured that you feel Eli’s bow-and-arrow penetrating the screen space.  Generally speaking, post-apocalyptic pictures frequently create convincing story worlds through striking visuals (for example, much of John Hillcoat’s recent The Road is populated with intense long shots of gray decimation), and such is the case in Eli, as empty highways, abandoned shacks, and dilapidated shantytowns are all presented in ways that remind the viewer of Eli’s miniscule place in a future made up of rubble, desert, and scorching sunlight. 

Bravura action sequences, of which there are several, also offer diverse aesthetic styles to the attentive viewer, as when Eli fights off cannibals in the silhouette-shade of a freeway overpass, or when an artillery-heavy gunfight is presented through swooping tracking shots that blend desert exteriors with grimy-hovel interiors.  Most importantly, the first half of the film takes its time in terms of narrative exposition – neither the unfolding story nor the shooting style seem rushed, and such confident and precise directorial temperament creates a believable and involving wasteland. 

A second reason to consider Eli as a better-than-average January picture is the caliber of the performances.  Denzel Washington, as an actor, generally practices one character type, made up of intense glances and a staccato rhythm and earnestness in his line delivery, a performative style that he riffs upon in most of his screen appearances.  Washington’s particular approach to screen acting, though fairly singular, is nonetheless malleable, and he can be utterly convincing and downright intimidating, as in Antoine Fuqua’s 2001 film Training Day, for which he received a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar.  However, in films such as the forgettable Jonathan Demme 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate, Washington’s onscreen presence can barely rise above the numbing material, his characteristic intensity stranded and lost in the film’s own failings. 

In and as Eli, the star finally offers his audience a different type of performance.  Whereas his characters usually seem unflappable and infallible, overly confident and unsurprised by the narrative twists they encounter, Washington’s Eli appears decidedly vulnerable.  Though he has faith, in both the good book that he carries (the last remaining copy of The Bible, we are led to believe) and in his knife- and gun-fighting skills, Washington’s performance evokes a thoroughgoing sense of dread that fills his character almost entirely – dread that his journey is for naught, that no providence exists on the coastline, that his weaknesses as a single man cannot overcome the motorcycle rape-gangs and the flesh-eating highwaymen he encounters.  In a unique scene for the actor, Eli hides behind rubble as vagabonds kill one highway voyager and rape another, verbally coaching himself to leave the situation alone, convincing his character, though not the audience, that the human weakness he witnesses regularly is not his problem.   

Along with Washington, Gary Oldman delivers a convincing, gripping performance, as he always does, being an actor who clearly respects and approaches screen acting as a studied craft.  The cinematic opposite of Washington, Oldman’s acting style seems to exist without boundaries – all of his performances are different, each captivating in their own right, whether he appears onscreen for but a second, as with his freaky, drugged-out appearance in Tony Scott’s 1993 True Romance, or takes the reigns of an unsung star performance, as in his convincing, dour turn as Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 megahit The Dark Knight.  In Eli, Oldman’s Carnegie, a bitter warlord who hopes to rule the wasteland with the word of God as his weapon, stands as Eli’s true test – it is Carnegie’s unbridled, angry, and eventually maniacal gloss of self-righteousness and spiritualized overconfidence that present the true barriers to the hero’s journey.  As Carnegie, Oldman is slippery, venomous, and gripping. 

Jennifer Beals, as Carnegie’s continual servant and sometime consort Claudia, lends emotional legitimacy to the film.  When tormented by Carnegie, Beals’ Claudia appears as a reservoir of pained emotion and loss, but yet not self-pity; when she eventually confronts her captor, Beals easily convinces the audience of Claudia’s mettle and tough hardwiring.  It’s rare for such a small role to have such depth, particularly during the month of January. 

Indeed, only Mila Kunis’ Solara, Claudia’s daughter, seems out of place – as several other reviewers have noted, Kunis seems to have entered the post-apocalypse by way of Rodeo Drive.  And yet, with a few dialogue and narrative hiccups aside, even Kunis’ Solara becomes at least slightly convincing, or perhaps not thoroughly distracting.  Here, I must admit personal bias: there’s nothing quite like watching a Beverly Hills beauty roll grenades under the armored vehicles pursuing her. 

So, am I saying that The Book of Eli is perfect?  No.  It’s not even a really great film.  The ending exposition certainly drags – one keeps hoping that they are witnessing the final shot after each location change within the closing montage.  And yet the ending’s narrative twist is unexpected, and the concluding confrontation between good and Carnegie’s embodiment of evil is so unique for an action film that it should be applauded. 

The Book of Eli simply cannot be a truly great post-apocalyptic movie, as its story is quite overtly cobbled together from its numerous dystopic science fiction predecessors and progenitors (in a telling moment, Eli spends the night in a room whose only decoration is a poster for the dystopic, perverse 1975 film A Boy and His Dog, in which Don Johnson’s protagonist adventures through – you guessed it – a post-apocalyptic wasteland).  For my money, the truly great films existing within this distinct sub-genre are George Miller’s 1981 The Road Warrior and Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 Children of Men, movies that triumphantly create thoroughly convincing and utterly terrible future worlds while being strikingly original in both their narrative content and filmmaking style.  But Eli is, refreshingly, a film with pretensions that exceed what appears onscreen. 

With most January movies, what you see in the theater and on the screen is ultimately all that you get.  By the time these films’ visuals have passed beyond the cortex and into the brain, they have dissipated, carrying no heft, existing as only the sum of their parts, and frequently far less.  I wouldn’t say that Eli necessarily makes you think (though it has certainly given me pause), but it does aim to rise above its fairly rote and frequently unimaginative structuring screenplay.  And, in the cinematically dead and deadening month of January, such aspirations, propelled by visual confidence and talented performances, certainly count for something.

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