This great review by the good people of CBR – spoilers ahead.
The film opens on nuked-out forest, with Eli (Denzel Washington) hunting his dinner – a hairless cat – as he wanders a post-nuclear event Western U.S. After scavenging the wasteland for a new pair of shoes and having an encounter with a group of highwaymen, Eli finds himself nearing a settlement. But before he arrives, he notices another group of men harassing some refugees, simply because they have books.
Once in the town, Eli trades with a tinkerer, played by Tom Waits. The exchange reveals some of the specifics of this world. Currency is anything that functions from the old world, with Chapstick in particular being a major form of payment. Across the road, Eli enters a tavern where he meets up with the crew who harassed the people with books outside of town. A fight ensues and Eli is stopped from killing them by Solara (Mila Kunis), the tavern girl.
Eli is then brought before the man in charge of the crew — and the town — Carnegie (Gary Oldman). After witnessing the fight, Carnegie believes Eli to be the man capable of finding a book he desperately needs to consolidate his power. Carnegie controls access to the clean water in the local area, but requires a very special book to unite the area. Little does Carnegie realize, Eli already has the book, but he can also tell that this town is not the tome’s proper final destination.
Eli spends the night as Carnegie’s guest. Solara is offered to him, but rather than have a carnal encounter, the two simply talk. She is intrigued by the stranger and his odd ways and, during the course of their conversation, Solara learns how to pray. The next morning, Solara tries to teach the prayer to her blind mother (Jennifer Beals) and Carnegie learns that Eli has the book he so desperately seeks.
Thus begins the chase, with the book as the ultimate prize.
The book, as it turns out, is The Bible. After Eli’s departure from Carnegie’s bar, Solara runs after him and learns that he has wandered the country for thirty years, all the while searching for a place where the book might be safe. Meanwhile, Carnegie informs his right hand man (Ray Stevenson) that “it’s not just a book, it’s a weapon.”
The first major surprise of the film is just how willing it is to accept the existence of The Bible, especially since one of the key features of popular science fiction is the genre’s general atheism. The various politics aside, sci-fi actioners of this scale rarely enter these theological waters. At the same time, the film is fairly even-handed in its spirituality. Events can just as easily be explained in sober, rational ways as they can be interpreted as acts of God. Eli’s faith, for example, is a power that only armors himself and does not necessarily offer others the same protection.
In Denzel Washington, Eli comes off as a fairly sober, rational person. Despite claiming to hear voices, the audience never perceives Eli as being crazy. This is entirely due to Washington’s screen persona and the actor’s sheer conviction in the role. Whether he is about to decapitate a cannibal or tell Solara about the world before it ended, you never doubt the character. There is a twist to the character, however, and it’s one that Washington gives subtle hints at throughout the film, resulting in an ultimate reveal that is completely rewarding.
As Carnegie , Gary Oldman is an effective antagonist. The actor portrays the villain ass soft-spoken for the most part and fairly naturalistic. He explodes only two or three times in the film, and the first of these is terrifying. Unlike the Oldman baddies of old, Carnegie does not need to prove his lethal force with every movement. He can afford to be affable because everyone in his town understands exactly what he can do. Carnegie is not a simple villain, either. In one memorable scene, he leans in to Eli and asks of the titular character, “Pray for me.” It is a sincere request, and Oldman’s eyes reveal just how much of Carnegie’s soul has been lost because he had to be the boss.
All of the film’s powerhouse acting is aided by some great action set-pieces. The film opens with a confrontation between Eli and the group of highwaymen that are revealed to be cannibals. The scene, tightly choreographed and edited, is played in shadow, and Eli reveals a ferocity and talent that is as mysterious as the book itself. The film’s centerpiece sequence is a raid of a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere where Eli and Solara are aided by a gentle, elderly couple. With inventive camera tricks, escalating levels of firepower and even a good dose of humor, the sequence plays extremely well.
In addition to the quality of the action, the Hughes Brothers — the film’s co-directors — bring a sense of reality to the proceedings. Although post-apocalyptic settings are pretty standard sci-fi movie fare after twenty years of “Mad Max” rip-offs, you never really question the situation in “The Book of Eli.” In similar films, there is often the sense of the present day just off screen. In the cheapest of these sorts of films, you will even see working highways and people not involved with the film going about their daily lives. Shot in New Mexico, “The Book of Eli” feels vast yet isolated. When the characters arrive in the ruins of a recognizable city, it’s much of a shock to the viewer as it is to Solara, a character who has grown up with no concept of cities.
The film does, however, take its time in getting to the plot. Eli’s initial walk to the town takes twenty minutes or so, and the ruins of the world are at times a little obvious. That luxurious opening could grate on those well-versed in the genre who are itching to see things move along, but once Washington begins to interact with others, the slow speed is replaced by the tension between two points of view on the book, represented by Washington and Oldman.
While there are several twists in “The Book of Eli,” the film’s most surprising effect is the way the premise will haunt the viewer. The film invites those that watch it to put themselves in Eli’s well-worn shoes, asking of them the question, given the last copy of the knowledge found in The Bible, what would you do with it? Destroy it? Cloister it away? Perhaps use it to form a new nation under your “careful” guidance? Maybe even preserve it? While the film never takes sides or presents the audience with an answer, it allows for a consideration of all of those viewpoints and leaves the audience with an intriguing puzzle: a mind game as entertaining as the film.