The Book of Eli
by Elaine Hegwood Bowen
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The Book of Eli is a visual masterpiece starring Denzel Washington as the keeper of the book. This book is believed to be the guide that led men in the past to righteous living before the war, that is before the sky split and the sun burned everything—all the people, blinding many others.
Washington plays the walker, a man named Eli who has been walking west in post-apocalypse California. His aim is to protect the Book of Eli, which is also the King James Version of the Holy Bible, as he says he’s been mandated by God to walk with the Bible until he’s shown where to share it with others.
Eli runs into a bunch of outlaws, led by Gary Oldman, who plays Carnegie, who has sent his goons out to gather up any books they can find. He believes that if he finds the Bible, he can rule what he terms weaker people and force them to listen to what he says; not just in his immediate area, but throughout the countryside. Carnegie has carved himself a living out of having the only place in town to get whiskey, water and women. With this power, he exacts wealth and strength that’s threatening to the townspeople. And his gang of goons is satisfied killing and running rampant in its quest to bring back books.
In this post war era, small things like shampoo, gloves, shawls and KFC wet wipes are considered gold and can at times be traded for that valuable commodity—water. Not much is left or remembered about the time before the war, not many people know how to read, let alone know what books are; or even this magical book of all—the Bible. People are living in devastating conditions, fighting each other for the least bit of food, water or shelter. I gather the ones who survived the war could use a bit of direction—but direction that brings out the good in humankind, not the kind that Carnegie has in mind.
Of course, Eli is only trying to protect the Bible, until he figures it’s time to let it go. Consequently, he does all he can to ward off the evil element, while slicing, dicing and shooting his way across the wasteland with a huge machete, bow and arrows, and an arsenal of weapons. At times, I marveled at just how strong, agile and talented Eli was, as he leads his one-man army of all that’s good. Sometimes it seemed unbelievable, but it was Washington, so I believed!
Carnegie’s household consists of his blind wife, Claudia, played by Jennifer Beals, and her daughter, Solara, played by Mila Kunis. After Carnegie discovers that Eli is different from other men and he figures out that he has the book for which he’d be searching, he tries to persuade Eli to stick around. He sends Solara to Eli’s room, which is the least squalid of the bunch, to sleep with him and encourage him to stay. Eli will have none of that, as he considers the young lady a nuisance and he’d rather have her leave. But he allows her to spend the night, and while she begs him to read to her; he teaches her how to say grace before she eats. The next morning, Eli escapes, and Solara follows him. Now the hunt is on for the both of them at any cost.
Solara does nothing but slows Eli down, and the pair finally is holed up in a house owned by an elderly couple. The house contains all the trappings of pre-war existence, including a television set. Carnegie and his goons follow them there, and after a spectacular round of gunfire, the house is in shambles, the elderly couple is dead, and Eli is forced to turn over the Bible in exchange for Solara’s life. When Carnegie finally opens the Bible, he’s in for a surprise.
And even though Solara was taken away with the gang, she escapes to go collect Eli, who’s been left to die. But he’s invincible, as he’s on a mission from God. The pair finally delivers the Book of Eli (which at this point Eli has committed to memory) to a man who runs the Alcatraz Press. Here he’s been gathering up and duplicating all the great literary masterpieces throughout time.
The Book of Eli is a great film, which takes Eli on a journey of great faith and commitment. But if anyone can deliver, it’s Denzel Washington.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago.
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