Eli’s world is a dry and weary one. There’s no water, and he walks through the ash of a jagged place, where men eat men and the sky’s torn in two.
Godforsaken, many would call this dystopian earth. But God is not gone, nor forgotten. For Eli carries, along with his gloves and guns and cruel, broad blade, something special. Something sacred.
A book. The Book.
In the age gone by, Bibles were burned by the bushel. They caused the War that tore a hole through the sky, the people said. It’s a book of evil, the people said. It must be destroyed—wiped from the face of the earth.
But they didn’t burn them all. Eli found one—or it found him—and for the last 31 years he’s carried the thing, protecting it by day, reading it by night. He carries it west, always west, where the sun comes down from heaven and seems to set upon the ground.
Eli’s not the only one who knows the power of the Book. In the heart of this parched land, a man named Carnegie has built a fiefdom around a precious spring. He’s a petty despot with a legion of heavies and a yen for power. And for years he’s been looking for the Book—a tool, as he sees it, to unite the weak and feeble-minded, and make him their master.
“I grew up with it,” Carnegie tells Eli, when he learns Eli is carrying the Book. “I know its power. And if you read it, then so do you.”
Eli knows. He knows that Carnegie has killed, and will kill, to get his hands on it. But Eli also knows this: Carnegie’s not getting the Book. Not while Eli still lives.
[Note: The following sections contain spoilers.]
“It’s one thing to do good,” star Denzel Washington told Reuters. “But you must do good in the right way.” And The Book of Eli makes viewers grapple with what that looks like:
In this bleak, post-apocalyptic world, there’s little reward for goodness. Eli strides down dusty roads like the instrument of an angry god. He can and does rain down bloody justice on a wayward people.
Despite his obvious power to take both what he needs and wants, though, Eli often shows both restraint and grace to those he comes across. He barters for goods, paying the exorbitant prices asked. When a woman is sent to seduce Eli, he ignores her advances and instead asks her if she’d like to share his dinner. And he always, always warns assailants to back off.
Eli pursues what he believes to be his God-given quest with single-minded determination—in itself an admirable trait. Yet, when forced to make a brutal decision—whether to relinquish the Book or save the life of Solara, a girl who’s fallen into his care—he chooses to save the latter, risking death for her sake.
He explains his decision to Solara later, admitting he didn’t always behave so admirably: After 31 years reading the Bible, “I forgot to live by what I learned from it,” he tells her. “Do for others more than you do for yourself. That’s what I got out of it, anyway.”
Other characters show flashes of virtue. Solara rescues Eli from certain death, and once the two of them reach sanctuary, Solara decides to go back to Carnegie’s anarchistic town—bearing with her, presumably, God’s good news. Solara’s mother clearly loves her child and refuses to help Carnegie misuse the Bible.
The premise of Eli centers around the Bible—not just as a book or an object of immense cultural value, but as a source of power. There’s a tacit understanding that this power can be abused (Carnegie’s selfish desire for the book gives voice to Christianity’s darker historical chapters), but we’re told, through Eli, that the Bible is inherently a good thing. And as we watch him read it, ponder it and protect it, we better understand how precious its words are.
When Eli first meets Solara, nearly the first thing he does is teach her how to pray over a meal. It’s this prayer—when Solara tries to repeat it with her mother over breakfast—that tips Carnegie off to the fact that Eli must be carrying the Book. He asks Eli to give it to him, telling Eli that its words are meant to be shared. With the Bible, Carnegie tells Eli, he can help bring light and hope to the people.
“I don’t have the right words,” he says, “but the Book does.”
Carnegie, though, thinks of Scripture as a weapon—a cudgel to beat down the masses. Eli knows differently: We learn that a voice—a voice he takes for God’s—led him to the Book and told him to take it west, and that he’d be protected along the way. And it does appear that the hand of God is on Eli: He gets out of unspeakably dangerous scrapes and when some of Carnegie’s men shoot at him, the bullets miss—something that mystifies Carnegie’s head henchman, Redridge.
“It’s like he’s protected somehow,” Redridge tells Carnegie.
Carnegie doesn’t believe it and, when he captures both Eli and Solara, he seems to prove his point.
“God is good, is He not?” Carnegie says, as Eli kneels in the dirt.
“All the time,” Eli says.
“Not all the time,” Carnegie answers, shooting Eli in the gut.
Carnegie takes the Bible back to town. But when he cracks open the clasp that holds it closed, he discovers that its written in Braille. Eli, who talks at one juncture about how he walks by faith, not by sight, is blind.
Eli survives the gunshot and makes his way west with Solara’s help. And they find a pocket of civilization holed up in Alcatraz—an echo of the monasteries that outlived the Dark Ages. To the inhabitants there, Eli recites the Bible verse by verse, line by line, while someone transcribes it.
The metaphors here are many and they paint poignant pictures of how Eli’s blindness changes his faith, how the pages of a Braille Scripture were useless to someone like Carnegie, how Eli hid the Word inside himself.
Of note: There’s no indication that the folks in Alcatraz share Eli’s faith, though they apparently honor the Bible as an important historical and literary work. When Eli’s recitation is taken down and published, the finished copy is put on a shelf between the Jewish Torah and the Islamic Quran.
Carnegie tries to force Solara to become, in essence, a prostitute, asking her to sleep with Eli as an enticement to get him to stay. Eli refuses Solara’s offer, but does allow her to sleep in his room so she can report to Carnegie that she did as she was told. Another woman tries to seduce Eli by displaying her cleavage—again, without success.
Other women are also shown wearing revealing outfits. Carnegie makes a crass reference to female anatomy.
Life is not sacred and a quick death might be seen as a gift in Eli’s harsh and bloodthirsty world. The overall tone of the film is far removed from the Sermon on the Mount. Rather, it recalls the Bible’s bloodiest passages—where legions of soldiers massacred whole people groups, where kings and queens were left in the street to be eaten by dogs.
In the opening scene, we see Eli skewer a hairless cat with an arrow. The body of a dead man—a gaping bullet hole in his head—is seen nearby. It only gets worse from there: Eli’s blade claims dozens of lives and limbs—its work often accompanied by sprays of blood. He cuts off a man’s hand and slowly drives the knife deep into the man’s gut. He shoots people, too, with pistols, shotguns and arrows. Blood gushes from broken noses, gaping wounds and gory stumps.
Eli watches from afar (along with the camera) as a handful of bikers shoot a man in the head, killing him. They also kill a woman, yanking her around as if to rape her first. (And when we see her later, dead, her breast is exposed.)
Solara is nearly raped. Eli spares her by shooting her assailants with arrows: One arrow—fired just as he unbuckles his pants—juts out of a man’s crotch.
Cannibalism is clearly practiced by Eli’s post-apocalyptic compatriots. He and Solara are once served such meat. And the couple that serves it is later brutally murdered. (We see the woman surrounded by a pool of gore and watch the man get riddled with bullets.)
Eli patches up his stomach bullet wound with duct tape. Corpses are seen everywhere—from skeletons left to rot in cars to a man who’s hanged himself in a closet. (Eli takes his shoes.) Bombs go off. Cars crash. One bad guy is strangled.
More than a dozen f-words and half-a-dozen s-words. God’s name is paired with “d‑‑n.” “B‑‑ch,” “b‑‑tard” and “h‑‑‑” are said.
Liquor flows at Carnegie’s bar. But Eli skips the hard stuff and asks for water instead. “That’s the good stuff,” the barkeep says.
Eli fibs on occasion—mainly to protect those around him. Body odor is a topic of conversation. Eli reaches into his pants to wash himself.
The Book of Eli is, perhaps, the most explicitly Christian film I’ve seen come out of the secular film industry since The Passion of the Christ. Indeed, it’s something of a Sunday sermon wrapped in a Mad Max adventure.
The Bible—what it is and what it says—lies at the heart of this cinematic Book. Denzel Washington, a Christian, co-produced the film, and he reportedly spent a great deal of time massaging dialogue and tinkering with scenes—which may have allowed his own appreciation for faith to shine through.
But this is a bloody movie. And its explicit violence feels, often, unnecessary—even within the post-apocalyptic trope we’re dealing with. Eli’s not so much God’s instrument as he is death’s angel: For all his morality and reverence for Scripture, he grinds up his adversaries—God’s handiwork, made in God’s own image—with the ripe regret of a wood chipper.
Does the violence eradicate Eli’s message? No.
Does the message redeem Eli’s violence? No.
This, then, is a spiritual tale told through the prism of a dystopian Western; a religious story shellacked with gore.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.