Available this week on DVD, “The Book of Eli” bears a strange resemblance to the old spaghetti westerns that launched the now estimable movie career of Clint Eastwood. You know the deal: a lone stranger rides into a ramshackle desert town which is clearly being ruled by a bad guy. Since there’s no law to speak of to face down the minions of evil, the (nameless) stranger has to do it himself, often to devastating effect. There’s usually an innocent (or not) woman or two involved, as well, though she’s scarcely a love interest.
In “Eli,” Denzel Washington—no slouch himself when it comes to heroism—plays the nameless desert wanderer, but the time is somewhere in the future. It’s thirty years after “The Flash” (an atomic holocaust?), and the world is a pretty dreary, vicious affair. Motorcycle gangs randomly kill strangers on the road; people are willing to sell themselves for water or food; illiteracy is the rule of the day.
The stranger—people dub him “Walker,” because that’s what he does—is heading west, only because he has had a revelation, an inner voice telling him he has to do so, but not why he must. Besides a bow and arrows, a pistol and a giant scimitar, his most precious possession is a King James Bible, which he claims to read every day.
In short, he’s an Old Testament figure, considerably updated and armed to the teeth, and he’s on a mission. Standing in his way is Carnegie, the self-styled mayor of a little town and owner of its lone brothel and saloon in an abandoned movie theater. Carnegie (Gary Oldman), himself an avid reader, also has a quest: he wants to find The Book, and is willing to pay or kill anyone he must to get his hands on it. With his blind wife (Jennifer Beals) and her lissome daughter, Solara (Mila Kunis), under his thumb, he has big plans for the town, but he needs “the words” to inspire others to obey him.
No need to track the plot much further: there’s plenty of violence to earn the film its “R” rating. The Hughes Brothers direct the actors in a stylized approach, everyone and everything becoming momentous, including the heavy music. It’s an entrancing film to look at, cinematographer Don Burgess employing a palette of grays and browns to achieve the washed-out, post-apocalyptic feel until the very end. And the ending, though it has been somewhat telegraphed, will likely surprise viewers and leave some big questions unresolved.
A Christian theme runs through much of the film, though not didactically so. (Don’t adjust your volume controls: the makers employ silence, much of the time, to make a point.) If the movie’s message is somewhat at odds with its methods, its emphasis on life without some kid of moral center is clear. “The Book of Eli” isn’t a great film, but it is an engaging one.