The Book of Eli
Updated October 10th, 2010: Have you ever written a post you wish you could take back? This would be mine. -Skye
When we got home from seeing The Book of Eli Friday night, my husband got on the web and started reading critics' reviews. I wish he hadn't, or that I hadn't sat behind him looking over his shoulder, because now all I want to write about is why Peter Howell of Toronto's thestar.com is a jackass for calling the two main female characters in this movie "hot hookers."
Allow me to sketch out a few things for you, so you can understand my annoyance, and then I promise to move on.
The title character, Eli, is played by Denzel Washington. He is traveling across post-Apocalyptic America (as directed by God) with the last surviving Bible. After introducing us to his character's amazing ability to hack up bad guys, the filmmakers start off the film's conflict by bringing Eli to a dusty small town controlled by Gary Goldman's Carnegie. Carnegie's control over the town is based on his knowledge of water sources and willingness to pay thugs to use violence against people who oppose him. His female companion, Claudia, played by Jennifer Beals, was born before the Apocalypse just like Carnegie and Eli. She is blind. Her daugher, Solara, played by Mila Kunis, works in Carnegie's bar.
Carnegie routinely uses physical violence against Claudia to control Solara, including ordering her to seduce Eli to gain his cooperation despite Claudia's pleas for mercy. Solara also seems to live with constant low-level harassment from Carnegie's chief henchman. Later in the movie, Carnegie uses her as a bargaining chip to secure the cooperation of said henchman.
So Peter Howell calls them "hot hookers." Gee, I wonder what he thinks of non-fictional women who are in abusive relationships, or who are forced into prostitution by threat of violence?
We now proceed to the actual movie review.
The Book of Eli wasn't a terribly original movie. I'm not very good at guessing the ends of movies, but I could pretty much see where this one was going once it got underway. Good guy, bad guys, etc. It was, however, a well paced story with engaging characters in a reasonably solid post-apocalyptic setting. From a Heroine Content perspective, it also offered a couple of treats: Eli himself, and the eventual transfer of his quest/calling to Solara.
Washington's Eli is not the typical "omg he's so deadly" action hero. His moves are mind-boggling, but they aren't filmed the same as the hero-worshipping action scenes I'm used to. My point of contrast was the initial shooting scene in The Replacement Killers, where the point of the choreography and the soundtrack is to make the shooting beautiful, to make Chow Yun-Fat this almost supernatural being, gorgeous in his deadliness. With Eli, what we get instead is efficiency, and a sense that the violence basically happens to him, as a distraction from the real story of his life. It's something to avoid, or if it happens, to end quickly.
Instead of a killing machine, Eli is a person. He nurses his somehow still-surviving IPod, tries to keep himself clean in an environment where water is scarce, feeds a tidbit of his precious food to a mouse. He's been alone for a long time, we think, but he still has social skills. When he and Solara begin traveling together, he starts to loosen up and show some of who he might have been before the war. He quotes Johnny Cash. He makes jokes. He starts to remember that making the world a better place is something that needs to happen along the path of his journey, rather than just being the prize at the end of the road.
Solara, whom Robert W. Butler of the Kansas City Star called "a local wench," is (in my unpaid non-professional film critic opinion) an actual, full-fledged character who also finds her meeting with Eli a turning point. She was born after the war, so this is the only life she knows, but she knows that the way Carnegie runs things is wrong. Her fear for her mother's well-being is part of what keeps her at Carnegie's beck and call, but part of it must also be the lack of anywhere else to go. Post-apocalyptic wastelands are difficult that way. When Eli leaves town, her mother sends her after him for her own safety and she gladly takes the opportunity to get out from under Carnegie's domination. Something in her also responds to the religious message Eli is carrying, and she wants to learn.
Solara also goes from being someone who stands there and cries while her mother is being abused to someone who throws a grenade under an oncoming vehicle and then goes to drive off with a dead body in the passenger seat. (She doesn't even scream when it comes back to life, which I totally would have.) I was pretty impressed. When it comes time for her to make a choice between safety and risk, at the end of the film, she chooses risk and the chance to "change it" as Eli had challenged her when she first set out on the road with him and complained that she hated her town. She takes on his mission.
In my ideal world, there would now be a sequel where Solara is the lead. Apparently I'm the only one, because there was a lot of laughter in the theater when she suited up to head back home and kick some ass. The couple behind me commented that she would last two minutes, and the first person who came up to her would just kill her. Y'all know that I have derided the supposed ass-kicking qualities of faux heroines before, so I am willing to call that out when I see it. But given the revelations about Eli towards the end of the film and what that implies about the source of his abilities, I have no problem believing that a transfer has taken place, of a sacred duty and the accompanying skill set from one man to his successor. Usually I roll my eyes when a woman's ass-kicking ability is granted from an external source, a la Red Sonja, but in this case that puts Solara on an even footing with Eli and it builds on some strong raw materials so it's fine by me.
I will fault the film for lack of casting diversity. Beals is of both African-American and white background, which I didn't know before. Mila Kunis is Jewish, originally from Ukraine, though my guess is that many people assume something else, or a variety of something elses. There are a couple of people of color here and there in the background, but even with an African-American lead, the rest of the world looks awfully white. As usual. Can I just write a stock paragraph now and start including it a review by default, and then strike it though when it doesn't apply?
Without spoiling, I'm also sensing an issue with those revelations about Eli, and how they could be construed to reinforce a prejudice about the capabilities of individuals with certain characteristics. This question becomes even more disturbing if you agree with Cynthia Fuchs at Pop Matters in the third paragraph of her review about the filmmakers' construction of Claudia. I disagree that the filmmakers were using that tired trope but I do appreciate her monitoring for it. If that was the filmmaker's intention, then it would make me more suspicious about their perspective on Eli. THIS IS SO HARD TO DO WITHOUT SPOILING. In any event, I don't believe that Eli's innate capability is diminished by the revelations but I think some people would. See the film and let me know what you think. If you can make any sense of this at all.
I give this one three stars. Since our focus here is on women, and Solara comes to her ass-kicking fairly late in the game, I can't rank her up with our other faves. However, the pairing of this origin story of an action heroine (as I see it) and the strong performance by African-American Washington are a great mix.