What exactly can be written about “The Book of Eli” without giving away critical parts of the story is a source of personal frustration. Releasing studio Warner Brothers has politely asked film critics to refrain from spoiling the ending of the movie, a request I will happily honor. However, there’s much to “Book of Eli” that requires potential killjoy description, so I beg your patience, dear reader. I apologize in advance if this review seems uncharacteristically vague and protective of the actual filmgoing experience. I’m under orders and frankly, the mysteries here are interesting enough to preserve.
30 years after “the flash,” the world has been stripped of its natural glory. Walking through the ashen, UV-drenched aftermath is Eli (Denzel Washington), a loner in possession of book he’s compelled to bring to the West. Dispatching troublemakers along the way, Eli makes a supply stop at a town of questionable habitation, run by Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a literate leader who rules the few remaining natural resources left to plunder. Looking for the very book in Eli’s possession, Carnegie hunts the warrior through the wasteland with his henchmen (including Ray Stevenson), while Eli picks up a partner in the form of a young woman named Solara (Mila Kunis), who’s desperate to know the contents of the book and learn the ways of self-preservation that have kept Eli alive through horrible circumstances.
“The Book of Eli” marks the return to the directorial chair for Allen and Albert Hughes, the former wunderkinds who last haunted theaters with their 2001 Jack the Ripper stinker, “From Hell.” From the opening titles, it’s clear that the Hughes Brothers have matured since their camera-trick heavy years with “Menace II Society” and “Dead Presidents,” putting forth a more meditative effort with “Book of Eli,” which deals with spirituality and cold-blooded survival in a bleak post-apocalyptic world of raw desperation.
Though it cribs wholeheartedly from previous end-of-the-world cinematic observations (think of the film as a cross between “The Road,” “The Postman,” and “A Boy and His Dog”), the Hughes Brothers craft a compellingly abrasive tone of moral manipulation to embellish the traditional maneuvers of violence, as Eli defends his secret tomb from would-be thieves and crusty scoundrels. Crossing the land armed with a machete, taking solace in the occasional KFC wet-nap bath and the infrequent charge of his shattered MP3 player (along with developing a taste for cat meat), Eli isn’t so much a wandering recluse as he is a man on a mission, facing a world of marauders and cannibals (a taste spotted by a quaking of the hands) who stand in his path toward unspecified salvation. “Book of Eli” finds an appropriate downbeat tone of decimated humanity, framed and monochromatically color-timed in the manner of a graphic novel to ease the audience into what will eventually reveal itself to be a stream of ambiguity that takes the entire 120 minute running time to properly lay out for inspection.
The book in question is representative of both unfettered evil and reassuring containment, and screenwriter Gary Whitta works in a superior amount of anxiety on both sides of the coin, showing Eli’s dogged determination and hinting at Carnegie’s sinister plans of mind-control. It’s a clever script that turns faith into a game of sorts, with only one possible pawn at play, but it’s a time-tested doozy of an upper hand once under complete control. The Hughes Brothers tart up the thematic lunge with a fitting display of bloodshed and shoot-outs, though they unfortunately lose their nerve and indulge in a cringe-worthy attack sequence of swirling camerawork and editing magic -- a rotten remnant of their mid-90’s film-brat bravado that stands out like a sore thumb in a picture of such solemnity.
Where “Book of Eli” ends up is a place of probable controversy and purposeful misdirection, sure to divide audiences sensitive to such matters of soulful purpose. I’m not certain the shell-game resolution is worth the journey, but the picture is satisfactorily atmospheric and often challenging, perhaps even unintentionally chilling in its closing statement of devotion.