“The Book Of Eli” is one of those apocalyptic films where sometime in the not too distant future, everything has gone to Hades in a hand basket. We’re not sure exactly what happened, or how long ago. All we know is, the world is a dreary and desolate place. Civilization as we know it has been destroyed. All that’s left are the ruins and the rubble and the hulking rust heaps.
Accompanying the chaos is complete lawlessness. If you survive at all, it’s because of your constant vigilance, your careful hoarding of essential supplies like ammunition, your resourcefulness in living off the land (can you shoot a quail in flight with a bow and arrow, without quailing at the sight?), and, on occasion, your willingness, at the drop of an insult, to fight to the death. Kind of like the Wild West, only there’s no sheriff; just you and the gangs of bad hombres who take what they want, because they can.
Eli (Denzel Washington) trudges through this bleak landscape quietly, but purposefully. Unlike the aimless wanderers who quickly fall victim to conscienceless desperados, he knows where he’s going — west. We discover that he’s not all that certain why he’s so focused; it seems he heard some kind of inner voice. That sounds like a religious man, but Eli, in order to have survived this long, is not at all afraid to engage in a violent brawl. He’s very accomplished at hand-to-hand combat, and several types of weapons. He’s merciless when he has to be. And yet, he’s obviously an educated man; a reader. And he carries this one book around with him like it’s his most precious and prized possession, and he reads it every day.
The bad guy, Carnegie (Gary Oldman), when he meets this unusual drifter, at first tries all his old bullying tactics, and is amused when they don’t work. Hey, this guy is different. When Carnegie discovers that Eli carries the one book he covets owning, he’s in a jealous rage to possess it. But, it’s a little like the Devil wanting to own a Bible. He might be able to read it, but the words wouldn’t have the same effect. He can hear the music, but he can’t sing the tune.
James-Bond style, Eli manages to impress, and then turn the allegiance of, the beautiful young girlfriend of the bad guy, Solara (Mila Kunis). Unlike James Bond, Eli is not interested in a sexual conquest, even if she is grateful at being rescued from the clutches of the fiend. This only makes her want to follow him around like a puppy dog. He says he doesn’t want her to, but, of course, she comes in handy down the road.
It would be tempting to give away the ending, as other outlets already have. Suffice it to say that this particular apocalyptic film has some serious religious overtones, in addition to its characteristic post-catastrophic mayhem. You may not agree with all its premises; I didn’t. But it fascinates in an unexpected way, nonetheless.
RONALD P. SALFEN is pastor of Grace Church in Greenville, Texas.