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The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli

In a post-apocalyptic world a man named Eli (Denzel Washington) walks across the wasteland carrying the last remaining copy of the King James Bible. The Voice of God told him to head west where he would find a place where the book would be safe. Under seemingly divine protection Eli is more than a match for the wasteland's many horrors, until he meets Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a gangster who runs a small town by controlling its water supply. Carnegie wants the book so he can use it to expand his power.

Eli is a post-apocalyptic drama with soul, compared to the rest of the genre. Only The Road may be as dramatically and thematically rich. Eli raises questions about the role of hope and faith -- contrasted against a world in which humans struggle daily for the most basic of necessities, bartering things like tubes of lip balm, cigarette lighters or sex for water and food. In a world filled with people who have bartered away their morals for just another day above ground, can a holy man like Eli bring the book safely through the wasteland?

The set design and framing of the movie is very reminiscent of the Fallout series of games. The protagonist walks through a washed-out, broken landscape of demolished homes and shattered highways structures. The strong prey upon the weak. Eli hunts house cats for food, and uses Kentucky Fried Chicken hand wipes to clean his groin -- when he can find them. (Nice product placement.)

Eli, although very moral (he allows a woman who tried to kill him to keep her meager supply of water) stays single-mindedly focused on his pilgrimage. When a couple on the highway are attacked by some raiders, the man is killed, and the woman is raped before being murdered. Eli is within striking distance, but doesn't save the woman. He keeps his distance, reminding himself to 'stay on the path, stay on the path'.

Denzel Washington is great here as Eli -- his pilgrim displays a quiet sense of strength. He's not a traditional macho badass. He barters with a junkshop dealer to recharge his iPod, snapping a shotgun pointed at him out of the shopkeeper's hands, and then giving it back to him as a display of trust. Eli doesn't want to fight, he's clearly a man of peace, understanding the man's inability to trust. When Eli arrives in Carnegie's shanty-town and goes to the bar for some water, one of the town's ruffians picks a fight with Eli. It doesn't matter that Eli apologizes to him with very real sincerity for an imagined slight, he still ends up having to fight, and easily fends off perhaps ten simultaenous attackers.

The action is incredible -- like a real fight, with every opponent attacking at once. They don't wait for their turn to attack like stunt extras in other movies -- the action feels very real. But Eli hardly ever sustains a scratch. To those who watch it seems as though he's protected somehow. It's not just the fact that Eli is skilled, he's on a mission from God and it gives him a kind of supernatural strength.

Carnegie takes notice of that strength and tries to entice Eli to remain in town and work for him. The theme of barter is present; Eli is being tested, tempted by Carnegie to stop walking. He promises him power. Eli politely refuses, eager to get back on the road. They force him to stay overnight and try to woo him with water and food, finally sending in a young woman named Solara (Mila Kunis) who is supposed to 'entertain' him. Eli instead teaches her to pray and she asks about his book. He asks her where the town gets its water. She refuses (bartering again) and Eli reluctantly reveals the book, but refuses to let her read it herself. They agree that he will tell Carnegie that they had a 'great time', and Eli chivalrously lets her sleep in the bed, while he takes the floor.

Eli tries to leave town but Solara prays with her mother, and Carnegie takes note, completing her prayer by saying 'Amen'. He's been searching for a copy of the book (The King James Bible -- the last remaining copy) and he forces Solara to tell him if Eli has the book. She does, and Carnegie confronts Eli on the street, in a scene right out of a classic western. He gives Eli one last chance to barter the book with him, in exchange for power and his life. Eli resists and eventually escapes but Carnegie organizes a party to track him down and get the book. When a henchman remarks, "For a book?" Carnegie explodes:


"It's not a f***ing book -- it's a weapon! -- aimed at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate. It could give us control of them. If we want to control more than one town we've got to have it."

The acting is good from everyone, and Oldman always makes for a convincing villain. He's not over-the-top here, but his Carnegie has wit, intelligence and ambition, all of which makes him dangerous and interesting. Some of Washington's best acting, surprisingly, is seen not when Eli is interacting with others, but rather when he's alone. In one scene Eli enters a bombed out building looking for shelter (and danger). He opens a wardrobe to find the shack's previous owner hanged. But he takes the corpse's shoes, which fit him perfectly. His feet were wrapped in what looks like plastic wrap. Eli dances in his new footwear, but only a little. The ascetic warrior-priest prays, and then hunkers down for a meal of feral housecat and then reads his bible, content and thankful.

There's a twist at the ending that some will viewers will see coming a mile away, but even so, The Book of Eli is an apocalyptic drama with surprising heart and faith. The hero walks through a world where everything can be bartered carrying the last source of what should never be bartered, hope and meaning.

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