Given the devastating earthquake in Haiti, with Wyclef Jean declaring, “This is apocalypse!” there’s an unsettling resonance to the dystopian vision of the Hughes Brothers’ The Book of Eli: Cities reduced to rubble. Lives cut short. Life’s essentials—water, food, hope—in desperately short supply.
Consider The Book of Eli a dispiriting primer on what the world would look like if, in the face of overwhelming disaster, we all resorted to our baser instincts. Starring Denzel Washington as an uber-loner trekking grimly across a blasted-out United States, The Book of Eli is bleaker than bleak, all faded grays and grime-encrusted grit. It has moments of brilliant observation and nuance—and moments of eye-rolling improbability. It is at times completely intriguing and engaging—and at other times, a seemingly never-ending slog to the land of tedium: Call it Mad Max Meets Man On Fire at the Apocalypse In the Wild, Wild West.
It begins promisingly enough: We see Washington (we don’t learn his name until the end) foraging for food in a forest, shooting a hairless cat with a bow and arrow, and then, after finding shelter in an abandoned house, roasting the cat on an improvised spit. Here, dialogue is kept to a minimum—save for Washington’s brief chat with a ravenous rat—and it is this nearly wordless scene that is the film’s finest. We watch him find the house’s previous owner hanging in the closet, see him take the dead man’s boots and then try them on, half-dancing with joy and relief. He bathes his battle-scarred body with wet wipes from KFC, treating each packet as if it were a $600 jar of La Mer face cream. We watch him read from a big book—the book will turn out to be very important—and then settle down for the night with a battered iPod. (This may be the first post-apocalyptic flick where the hero soothes his soul with some old-school Al Green.)
It’s a lovely bit of cinematic haiku. In that moment, we don’t know who he is or what happened to him, but we know everything that we need to know about the overwhelming sense of loneliness and alienation that he feels. (Washington, is, simply put, stellar.) This is a film that doesn’t tell us much about what happened; rather, it’s a story told in ellipses. Characters refer obliquely to “in the world before” and “the flash.” Anyone middle-aged is deemed ancient; the youthful majority is all illiterate. Here, soap is more precious than gold and ChapStick is something over which you battle. And water? Fresh water? Forget about it.
In depicting this world, the Hughes Brothers (twins Allen and Albert) create little moments of magic: Washington and a storeowner (a nearly unrecognizable Tom Waits) bartering over those KFC wipes and ChapStick, all nostalgia and longing. Jennifer Beals, as a blind gangster’s moll, looking enraptured as she smells shampoo—possibly the last bottle on the planet. An old couple on the prairie cranking up the Victrola to play … Anita Ward’s 1979 disco hit, “Ring My Bell.”
But moments of magic do not a movie make. The Book of Eli is about Washington’s nameless character’s evangelical mission to save the world—a world he believes can be saved only by his mysterious book. And so he walks the earth, littered with car carcasses and bombed-out strip malls, encountering bad guys along the way. Bad guys that he proceeds to dispatch with stunning ferocity, eviscerating them with a sword, or blowing them to bits with a shotgun.
The body count adds up with a quickness. And this is where the film starts to fall part and the eyeball-rolling commences. For starters, there’s the relatively late addition of Mila Kunis as Washington’s road buddy, which seems calculated strictly to attract a certain demographic. (It doesn’t help that she’s dressed like a fashionista from the photoblog The Sartorialist, if that is, said fashionista hadn’t had a shower in 10 years.) On the other hand, the baddest of the bad guys, played by Gary Oldman, is a hoot. (His raison d’être: He’ll do anything for Washington’s book.) But he and Washington aren’t given enough screen time together for the audience to really relish watching good and evil duke it out. And: Seriously? Is a book—even this book—worth the pileup of corpses?
The ending provides one humdinger of a plot twist. Is it believable? Not by a long shot. But how you feel about the ending will have a lot to do with what you think of the book that our man Eli—as we learn is his name—is hauling around.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer. Follow her on Twitter.