It’s like opening a well-wrapped present only to discover it’s socks or a gift card to Olive Garden, this fails to meet its early promises.
Should I see it?
Sure. But keep your expectations in check.
Director: The Hughes Brothers
Writer: Gary Whitta
Starring: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Tom Waits and Michael Gambon
Rated R for violence and language
Eli (Denzel Washington) is a lone drifter traveling through the barren, waterless concrete dustbowl of post-war America on an apparent mission from God. Along with his custom-made machete and Oakley sunglasses, he carries the only remaining Bible in the whole world. Which is fitting since, from the looks of the cast, he is also the only remaining black man in America as well.
Eli arrives at an isolated town run by the small time despot Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Carnegie has been sending his biker bandits on missions to collect books from across the surrounding wasteland. Carnegie is a budding fascist and understands that if he can find a copy of the Bible, the Word of God, he will have the key to gaining tighter control on the minds and souls of the population, thus affording him a path to greater glory.
Eli strolls into town. His Bible is found out and he refuses to hand it over. Hollywood violence ensues in short order.
This is a solid premise and the story’s central conflict is well supported by a compelling protagonist and antagonist (Eli and Carnegie, respectfully). There is no reason why this shouldn’t be a fun, notable film. Remarkably, even with an engaging conflict and a (mostly) talented cast, this film ends up missing the mark.
There is an old adage for police that you don’t pull out your gun unless you’re going to use it. The same can be said for faith in film. If you broach the sensitive subject of religion you had better be willing to a have a conclusion one way or the other. Any story that pulls in religious imagery or text and then balks at remaining firm through to the end will ring hollow – just like this film does. I discuss this further in the Worldview section of this review below.
Beyond the faith issues, the serious problem with the film is the woefully miscast Mila Kunis. Kunis is not a great actress. She is famous because she is beautiful. She does not captivate the camera and she doesn’t emote. She recites her lines and does a good job of staying out of the way of more talented actors. In her scenes with Washington, Oldman and Jennifer Beals. she wilts in comparison. Her presence is a constant reminder that this is not the serious film that it could have been.
If her out-of-step screen presence wasn’t bad enough, the design team failed to make her believable in context to her environment. Solara (Kunis) was born after the destruction of civilization. This means she has never known soap, shampoo, conditioner or makeup. Somehow she wears makeup, has thick, healthy hair and white teeth. She is a dark haired Barbie in the age of Mad Max.
In contrast, the real standout in the production is Jennifer Beals. It is surprising she didn’t garner more attention from her supporting role. Unlike Kunis, Beals provides a striking natural beauty. In or out of makeup, you can muddy her up and she’s still going to glow. This makes Carnegie’s lecherous behavior toward her understandable. His lechery is the key element fueling their master/slave relationship. Beyond the superficial, Beals also provides the real emotional hook in the production. Our hero Eli is a stodgy, unlikable guy. It falls to Beals to provide the emotional connection for the audience and in this role she shines. If there is anything to take from this film, it comes from her performance.
The film starts out strong with intentional cinematography and design supported by an invested cast. However, the level of artistry falters as the film descends into being just another action film. Had the film retained its early seriousness, this could have been quite an experience.
Overall, this is a good pick if you’ve run out of other things to see. You won’t be moved, you won’t even remember the film in a year’s time, but it will entertain for its duration.
While Rated-R, the persistent violence in the film is, for the most part, not gory. There are a couple of quick nasty moments, but nothing shocking for the modern audience. In addition, Eli’s violence are acts of self-defense. He never initiates the conflict but rather attempts to walk away when possible. This frames the violence in a way to reduce its harshness. He isn’t killing to kill, he is killing to survive and that is an important difference.
At the end of the film, Eli completes his mission. He arrives at Alcatraz where he recites the Bible verse for verse to a librarian. The newly printed Bible is stored in a library in between the Koran and the Torah. Even though Eli is clearly shown to be protected by miraculous intervention, his efforts are rewarded by being morally equated to other religions. The end is a statement that implies that all religions are the same.
The filmmakers Albert and Allen Hughes are easy to use the Bible and the Christian faith to propel their story forward. They give time to show Eli praying and reading the Bible. Remarkably, there is even a scene where prayer is handled with respect as Eli teaches an ignorant local, Solara (Mila Kunis) how to pray for the first time (a very rare sight in modern film indeed). There is no doubt that the concepts surrounding the Christian faith are present throughout the film.
However, The Hughes Brothers fail to fully accept the faith they’re using for their own means. Despite being sent on a mission by God, despite reading the Bible daily, Eli never utters the words “Jesus Christ”. Find me a devout Christian, one who reads Scriptures daily, who avoids citing Christ? Yes, I understand that filmmakers want to reach the broadest audience possible and using the name of Christ will make some uncomfortable. However, making Christianity faceless inherently removes its deeper value and therefore undercuts the motives propelling both the hero and the villain. In particular, Carnegie’s desire to possess the Bible is rendered meaningless. Without the power of Jesus being the resurrected Son of God, and the Word being presented in that framework, the Bible is essentially Jewish fan fiction. It holds no inherent power without Him. Carnegie’s assumption that the Bible has value only makes sense if the Bible’s real power is shown in its entirety. Without Jesus, he may as well be desperate to find the last remaining copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People.