Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Book of Eli

I saw the new Denzel Washington movie, "Book of Eli" last night. Directed by the Hughes Brothers, it's an end of days story--one of the better that I've seen--that focuses on Eli (played by Denzel). Eli has become a kind of nomad since a mysterious war, resulting in near-Armageddon, which happened about thirty years before. We soon find out that Eli's wanderings are part of a mission, a "path." He doesn't explain this, but simply says he must "go West." The movie answers this particular question and a few others by the end, but most of the larger ones go unanswered. We never know, for example, why the war that caused the Armageddon started. But leaving these biggies as question-marks actually strengthens the story by keeping a tight focus on the characters and their own struggles. And it has the added effect of maintaining a surreal tone throughout.

The cinematography is super cool. The scorched, greenish-yellow landscape comes off very deliberate, but it doesn't matter because of how good it looks. Much of it reminded me of a cross between "The Matrix" and "There Will Be Blood," both of which killed it in the cinematography department, so that's a compliment. The sometimes ethereal and sometimes spooky soundtrack, which sounded like it could have been composed by a team of Sigur Ros and UNKLE (what a team right?), fit like a glove with the rest of the movie. I was delighted, but not surprised, to find out that Atticus Ross, who scored the film, has worked with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails on quite a few recent albums.

The Hughes Bros. did a solid job--but not a perfect one--with the story concept. In the movie's post-civilization setting, where bandits murder and rape innocents capriciously, and the definition of survival has shifted from graduating Phi Beta Kappa, to having enough water to last the night, the question becomes: what is there to live for? Why continue to survive?

Two competing narratives aim to answer this question. Eli, a quiet and thoughtful man, has found meaning and purpose through a steadfast faith in God, and the belief that he is part of a mission larger than himself. And then there's Carnegie (played by Gary Oldman), a Machiavellian leader of a rather successful town. Carnegie believes that the text of the Bible will help him manipulate people to further consolidate his power and expand his town, and so he is consumed with searching for one of a few copies that was not burned during the war. It's a classic good vs. evil tale: one uses the scripture for a noble cause, the other uses it for his own selfish gain. This stripped-down simplicity though, was absolutely the right approach. In fact, Eli's faith in the post-civilization context is so convincing that I, a rabid cynic, sort of bought it as a legitimate defense of faith.

As an aside: for any "Fifth Element" fans out there, there's a moment near the end of the movie where, without giving anything away, Carnegie (Oldman) experiences a horrendous shock that is so uncannily like the scene where he realizes the stones aren't in the case. Had to be either a tribute or an outright hijacking.

I definitely recommend this movie. In closing, one very cool aspect that I didn't mention is there are some killer fight scenes. Denzel is, as always, one bad dude. He even carries a sawed-off shotgun--you know he's surgical with that.

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