January 18, 2010

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.

12 Comments

as much as i'd like to disagree with you in your analysis of solara's character, i can't.

however, i really, really wish they'd cast someone else. kunis was about as useless and annoying in this role as winona ryder was in alien 4. her acting ability doesn't seem to extend much beyond her 70s show character.

Comparing her to Ryder in Alien 4 is a pretty low blow. :) But I agree there's a Your Mileage May Vary on that casting choice, and I would have enjoyed the film even more if an actor with a little more range had been cast.

I understand why you are pissed about the description of the two female leads as being "dressed like hookers". I read a review of this movie that didn't quite put it that offensively, but did ask what I think is actually a reasonable question; in a movie that is supposed to take place in a post-Apocalyptic world, why are the two main characters "walking around the desert in shades, high boots, and flowing hair, as if (they) were a starlet roaming through West Hollywood?" (as the reviewer I read put it). I admit to not having actually seen the movie, but even the commercial left me wondering, if this movie is about life after the end of the world, where is Mila Kunis finding all that eyeliner?

But even if you are right about the kick-assness of the female characters in this movie, I can't get past the fact that it still seems like something I wouldn't watch because the plot seems so freakin' dumb. So Eli is on a "mission from Gahd" to spread the Word, and believes that he can save what's left of humanity by passing on the teachings in the last copy of the Bible that he alone carries. Gary Oldman is his Satanic counterpart who believes that the Bible will grant him dictatorial powers. The central drama of this movie stems from the fact that both seem to think that society can only be saved via the Bible, which on the surface is such a stupid premise since the previous civilization obviously had the Bible as well, for all the good it did them. So what the hell is the point here?

I guess what I'm trying to say is, it doesn't really matter to me how kick-ass the female leads are in this or any other movie, if the premise is so ridiculously idiotic as to keep me from wanting to spend $10 to go see it in the first place.

The seemingly endless supply of makeup was a little silly, yes. The couple of women we see outside of the town look pretty rough, whereas both of the female leads are essentially kept by Carnegie and presumably have better access to resources - but a functioning Maybelline factory was not in evidence.

I just saw this last night. You were actually a lot nicer to the movie than I would've been. Sure, Solara does turn into a bad-ass in the end, but that didn't make up for the rest of the movie for me. There were only three women in there, first of all (unless you count the lady with the cart, who showed some female solidarity when she urged Solara to get away before the guys jumped her), and second of all, the main two are getting beaten up by dudes half the time. The other one, Martha, was born a bad-ass, but she dies within two minutes of her appearance. I was like, is any woman gonna get to pull a trigger here?

Basically, the end was good, but it didn't redeem the film.

The more I think about this movie, the more that I dislike it. I was hoping that HC would explain to me why, but this review didn't so much.
I do think that HC missed the general major anti-woman feel of the movie, though. The first woman we see is the bandits' bait. Not terribly empowering. The second is a woman that Eli lets get raped and murdered (I presume) so that he won't be interrupted from his path. Then we go to a brothel, and meet the two main female characters. It's like the only purpose that women have in this post-apocalyptic world is sex. The movie could've had at least one woman who was prepared to protect herself. May be woman-as-only-vaginas is the way that it could be, but I for damn sure will find a lady partner that I can work with to protect each other from these brutish men.

I agree with just about all of the points everyone's making about the weaknesses, and I respect anyone who comes to different conclusions. I felt like the movie's arc showed changes in the conditions that several people here are mentioning as proof of anti-woman sentiment - and I felt like a lot of that came from Solara's and Eli's evolution. But different people are going to feel differently about the relative weights of various plot elements.

That's the wacky thing about reviewing films here. I can agree with a commenter about all of the elements they object to, and yet we can still have totally different final opinions about the film. And usually I think we're both right.

Well said Marina! "the general major anti-woman feel of the movie" - only I wouldn't put it so mildly: to have millions of people sit through a film where women are mostly humiliated, violated and used is woman-hatered, not just 'anti-woman'.

I didn't watch past the 3rd rape scene (and only got that far because a friend recommended the film). I am completely fed up with gang-raping being considered entertainment (it is so obvioustly used to titillate, this is just violent pornography spilling out into 'mainstream'), and the fact that nobody seems to bat an eyelid about this even on a 'women empowerment' site is pretty amazing..

Also totally agree with ronathan, very well said: "The central drama of this movie .. society can only be saved via the Bible, which is such a stupid premise since the previous civilization obviously had the Bible as well, for all the good it did them. So what the hell is the point here?"

I was bored by this movie, and only because I chose not to get too angry. Blind people have special powers, women are either whores or virgins (or prophets, if they're lucky enough to be born blind) and get beaten and raped all the time, and Denzel gets to be the magical negro who lives just long enough to impart his wisdom to God / Malcolm McDowell – and all that filled with Christian gloat-imagery where without God, society turns feral and savage within decades (and where it's even logistically possible to destroy all the bibles), and where the King James bible is so holy that it must be transcribed word for word.

Some beautiful shots, though, and I'm glad Skye enjoyed the film where I didn't.

I recant my review, honestly, and I should update it to say so. I got too distracted by shiny things and a desperate need to find something to like.

Hey,

I hope you actually want to recant. Don't feel pressured because you liked something other people didn't. I, for one, am a hardcore atheist and that quite probably influenced my take on this film.

Patrick, I'm a pretty die-hard atheist too, but the "humanity needs religion" plot line didn't offend me as an atheist, it offended me as a movie-goer since it was a ridiculously contrived and illogical plot device. And I really didn't have any problem with Washington's character either, his main trait was religion, not race, and thus I had no problem with how he was treated or how he acted.

That being said, Solara's character did not get near enough "pay-off" at the end to justify the disrespect with which it treated her, so it still scores low for me.

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