Eli (Denzel Washington) travels alone across a desolate landscape. As he rummages through abandoned and dilapidated homes and walks past the husks of rusted out cars, we quickly get the sense something bad has happened, something big that caused their way of life to change. As Eli makes his way west, we see he has two prized possessions. The first is an old IPOD he has jerry-rigged to a battery, to listen to music, to give himself an escape from the desolation around him. The second is a large leather bound book with a lock and a cross on the cover, a bible which he reads on a nightly basis. One day, he approaches a crumbling freeway interchange and watches as a group of motorcycle bandits quickly overtakes a man and a woman traveling together. They kill the man, take their possessions and begin to rape the woman. Eli watches, trying to decide if he should reach out, if he should get involved and help the woman. He decides to move on. Later, he comes to a town populated by a group of survivors and led by Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Carnegie lords over his people by controlling the food and water. He also provides alcohol drugs and women to the populous, operating out of a makeshift brothel carved out of an abandoned theater. Carnegie sends his teams out to scour the countryside looking for a book. When Eli arrives, he realizes the bike gang is in the bar and quickly takes them out with his sword and some fancy footwork. News travels to Carnegie and he wants to meet the new arrival. Carnegie wants Eli to work for him, to help him rebuild society. They are both survivors and know what life was like before the war thirty summers ago and they can both read. But Eli declines. Soon, Carnegie learns of Eli's bible, the very book he had been searching for. He sends Solara (Mila Kunis), the daughter of his companion (Jennifer Beals), a blind woman whom he adores, to visit Eli and spend the night with him. But Solara soon realizes Eli is different and might be able to help her escape. They reluctantly team up and continue west. But Carnegie isn't going to give up that quickly.
When a film takes place in a different time or reality than our own, it has to work very hard to establish this landscape and to make us believe in everything that is happening. The filmmakers are extremely successful in one regard and less so in another. The landscape Eli travels is bleak, gray and desolate. As he walks through the gray, dressed in an old army jacket and a pair of wrap around sunglasses, nothing he passes looks like it was built recently and this fits extremely well with the back story we learn during the course of the film. A nuclear war happened thirty years ago and the survivors have been struggling to live ever since. People like Carnegie have power because he is able to control things like water and food. Most of the people surrounding people like Carnegie and Eli are younger and many have been born after the war. This means most are unable to read. Because of this, Carnegie realizes the power a bible might have and seeks to find a copy.
When Eli first spots the lone couple pushing a shopping basket with all of their belongings, he stops and watches them. The bike gang quickly overtakes them, kills the man and rapes the woman. But Eli just watches from his perch high above, tentatively reaching for his machete. He decides not to interact. Yet, later, he cautiously approaches a woman sitting on the ground next to her overturned shopping cart, apparently unable to move. Why is he reluctantly willing to help one and not the other? Later, Eli talks vaguely about his journey and it seems like he is on a quest. But how can we believe in his quest when he reluctantly agrees to help some, but not others. As we begin to learn more about the extent and meaning of Eli's journey, this double standard becomes even more troubling and problematic to the narrative.
Denzel Washington is always good and as Eli he brings the right amount of seriousness and conviction to the role. We get he has a serious goal for his journey and he won't let anything stand in his way. When he realizes the danger Carnegie presents, he simply walks away, trying to avoid further conflict. Of course, Carnegie can't let it end. When he has to help Solara, he does so reluctantly because it will impede his journey. But we get the sense that some part of his journey might be leading him to provide her with a hand.
Washington is an extremely charismatic actor and he is just about always good, even when he appears in films that don't match his skill. Unfortunately, as one of the top stars in Hollywood, he continues to appear in films that don't match his skill. So for every film that reminds us why he is a star with great skill ("Crimson Tide", "American Gangster", "Devil in a Blue Dress"), he appears in an almost equal number of films that give us reason to question his skill ("Déjà Vu", "The Siege"). Washington clearly likes to work with the same people (he has appeared in a number of Tony Scott films ("Crimson Tide", "Man on Fire") but I have to wonder why he appears in so many films that don't live up to his ability. Is it the money? Is he anxious to make more films? If so, why doesn't he use his start power to make these problematic films better?
Gary Oldman is good as Carnegie, the man who realizes the people, the few survivors, need to believe in something. He also realizes that if he possesses this, he will become more powerful and more legendary. He rules his kingdom with a quiet intensity. It is interesting to watch him interact with Claudia (Jennifer Beals), his blind lover. When the motorcycle gang brings back some shampoo, he eagerly uses it to wash Claudia's hair, thrilled to provide her with the luxury. But when he sees an obstacle in his way, he has no qualms about ordering his men to remove the barrier.
Mila Kunis is less interesting as Solara. Carnegie initially orders her to spend the night with Eli and she is clearly not used to fulfilling such requests. But when she realizes Eli is not interested, she pleads with him to simply let her stay the night. If she is sent away, Carnegie won't like it and she will have trouble. Later, when they begin the quest, Kunis seems to be simply moving her character through the emotions. She is unable to really make us believe she shares the same intensity as Eli.
Ray Stevenson (HBO's "Rome", "The Punisher: War Zone") plays Carnegie's security. Stevenson is always interesting to watch, he has a certain intensity about him which causes us to watch him, even when he is saying mundane things or unable to contribute to the narrative.
There are a couple of interesting action scenes. Early on, Eli is confronted by a motley band of survivors who are looking to score something to eat (cannibalism seems to be common in this time). He gives them a chance, informing them if they continue they won't survive. They laugh and confront him. Eli moves under an old overpass and the entire fight happens in darkness, we are only able to see their silhouettes. He quickly dispatches the group, beheading more than a few of the attackers. In fact, this one scene has more beheadings than I have ever seen in a single film before. The scene is interesting visually and there are a couple of moments like this. But the rest of the film concerns Eli's slow journey across a barren landscape. It feels a bit like someone touched a fast forward button (for the fight scenes) a few times while watching a DVD of the rest of the film.
There is a final "ah huh" moment. And it is interesting, but it unfortunately raises more questions and starts to make the viewer look more closely at the rest of the narrative, trying to spot any other problems, holes and poorly constructed bits. When this happens, the film has to be air tight, to withstand such scrutiny.
And "The Book of Eli" isn't.