In The Book of Eli, Denzel Washington, is a man who can best be described as a violent pacifist. He’s on a mission, following a voice he doesn’t fully understand but is completely devoted to. Like the prophets of old he has taken what seems to be the last Bible on earth and carried it forth even when the words don’t fully make sense to him. Eli is making his way west, intent on carrying his precious cargo to a destination he doesn’t seem to be sure of himself.
From the first scenes of Eli silently stalking an emaciated cat and then conserving its fat as it is cooked on a spit there is no doubt something terrible has happened to mankind. One scene after another is filled with freeways that dead end in piles of rubble and exposed girders, lawless marauders, while what little remains of civilization teeters on the precipice of devouring itself.
How did the world get this way? Thirty seconds of dialogue in a two hour movie is all we are given to offer a clue. Even that is vague, discovered only through the remembrances of one man who has been walking west for thirty years since whatever occurred that ripped a hole in the sky. But one need only walk with Eli through the barren land that was once America and derive all the back-story that is needed. Something apocalyptic happened and everything changed. Anything more would detract from the effect.
The war tore a hole in the sky, the sun came down, burnt everything, everyone, I wandered, I didn’t really know what I should do or where I was going. I was just moving from place to place,trying to stay alive.And then one day I heard this voice.I don’t know how to explain it, it’s like it was coming from inside me. But I could hear it clear as day. Clear as I can hear you talking to me now. It told me to carry the book west, it told me that a path would be laid out before me, that I’d be led to a place where the book would be safe it told me I’d be protected,against anyone or anything that tried to stand in my way. If only I would have faith. That was thirty years ago and I’ve been walking ever since. – Eli
The Hughes brothers, who returned Batman to his Dark Knight heritage have created a visually stunning and disturbing world. Cinematographer Don Burgess, crafts an effect in which the colors are almost drained from the landscape. It is a bleak world where barter is the only currency and untimely death the only certainty. This is a violent film but even its carnage has a certain poetry to it. There’s a meter and rhythm to the way Eli avoids violence as much as he can while at the same time effortlessly measuring out the right amount of force to squelch the evil around him.
There have been plenty of apocalyptic tales told before The Book of Eli. From Planet of the Apes to all of the Mel Gibson, Mad Max movies, to Will Smith in I Am Legend, film makers have sought to capture what a world where calamity has consumed society might be like. But The Book of Eli does so with a subtly and yet stark clarity that will stay with the viewer for a long time.
In many movies there is some kind of explanation from a character, the opening sequences, or flashbacks that give some clue what caused the world to go mad. Not in The Book of Eli. Everywhere we look we see remnants of a prior civilization, the one before the “Flash.” Eli tries to explain what he has come to know about the event thirty years prior but admits no one really knows why it happened. From a survival standpoint, what makes this movie so effective is its very lack of explanation.
The world that was is now simply called “the before time.” Having lived through major hurricanes and experienced the hours of total disconnection from the outside world this writer can only imagine what it would be like for an entire society to be so suddenly cut off.
Perhaps no scene in the movie better pictures the odd mixture of hopeless determination to survive whatever the cost than when Eli and his traveling companion encounter a couple having somehow managed to make a normal life for themselves. The old couple lives in a house by itself in the New Mexico wilderness, replete with a bit of a picket fence. They serve tea and enjoy music from an old Victrola. It is only when they come under attack we discover the kind of fire power the couple possesses. Later Eli notices the multiple graves behind the house and recognizes how the couple found food for so long after others ran out. It isn’t just society that has been devouring itself and man’s cannibalism has brought with it madness beyond what most of us ever want to consider.
The Book of Eli adds layer of hope that seems impossible against the backdrop of a world gone to hell. Eli is heard whispering to himself on more than one occasion, “Stay on the path.” When asked where he has been heading for three decades his only answer is, “west.”
Eli is a man of faith carrying words that offer the only real hope once everything else has disintegrated. To tell you more about how that plays out would be a disservice to you as a viewer. While the world around him blusters, and swears, and steals, and kills, Eli quietly remains focused on restoring some semblance of humanity everywhere he goes.
Dear Lord, thank you for giving me the strength and the conviction to complete the task you entrusted to me. Thank you for guiding me straight and true through the many obstacles in my path. And for keeping me resolute when all around seemed lost. Thank you for your protection and your many signs along the way. Thank you for any good that I may have done, I’m so sorry about the bad. Thank you for the friend I made. Please watch over her as you watched over me. Thank you for finally allowing me to rest. I’m so very tired, but I go now to my rest at peace. Knowing that I have done right with my time on this earth. I fought the good fight, I finished the race, I kept the faith. – Eli
So what can we learn from this tale? Perhaps it is more real than many would care to imagine. Look back at New Orleans in the days after Katrina and tell me how quickly civil order disintegrated. Look at those who claim to have faith in God and tell me how many would stay on the path if the world went mad around them. Thing is, many of us wonder if the madness hasn’t already begun to break out like a hole torn in the sky.