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Posts in: July 16th, 2010

The Book of Eli (2010) by Gary Whitta and Anthony Peckham

Note: Gary Whitta is the only credited writer in the finished movie, but the screenplay used for this column also listed Anthony Peckham’s name.

This might sound like a strange statement, but here it goes: screenplays, on the whole, aren’t meant to be read. By anyone. Over the course of 100 years, everyone in Hollywood who isn’t a writer but must—for one reason or another—read a screenplay has beaten the literature out of screenwriters. (If you don’t believe me, search online for screenplays for films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or Sunset Boulevard and compare the prose to something like Avatar, and you’ll understand what I mean.) This does not mean writers don’t write great scripts despite the constraints of the medium; it just means that they operate differently from literature. They serve as a blueprint for a film yet to come, not something that should be consumed for pleasure.

There are many schools of thought as to why this evolution has occurred. Many attribute it to the egos involved in making a film. If one makes scene descriptions too vivid and/or filled with camera jargon, the director may feel like he or she can’t make a creative contribution. If one fills scenes with dialogue inflection notes, descriptions of facial expressions, or “business” for the characters, the actors don’t feel like they can make creative contributions. And so on and so forth, until screenplays are worn down to nubs that mostly rely on robotic dialogue and clipped, turgid descriptions of action to tell the story. Legitimately great writing stands out because it’s so rare in an industry where the hallmark of a great screenwriter is the ability to condense lofty (and not-so-lofty) ideas into a haiku.

(I know that last paragraph sounds like I’m denigrating the entire screenwriting community. I’m not; it actually is, in its own way, exceptionally challenging and rewarding to write a screenplay that “gets away” with creating imagery that’s vivid enough to be interpreted correctly by the filmmakers but not so vivid that they feel as if the writer is “directing on the page.” But that still doesn’t mean a screenplay should be mistaken for literature, or even an accurate depiction of the finished film.)

The Book of Eli, on the other hand, throws caution to the wind and attempts to operate as a work of literature unto itself. It tells a fairly basic neo-western story set in a post-Apocalyptic wasteland a few decades in the future. Writers Gary Whitta and Anthony Peckham pack the screenplay with dense, disturbing imagery, building a decaying world that rivals only Philip K. Dick’s nightmarish Dr. Bloodmoney in its portrait of survival. It opens with three solid pages describing the horrors of this world, peppered with stark reminders of how things used to be. It’s a breathtaking opening that tosses aside pretty much every modern screenwriting convention in the book (Screenplay by Robert McKee) in favor of telling a really good story.

The opening pages of The Book of Eli effectively absorbed me into its universe, and it hooked me all the way. I even remained onboard in its goofier moments, because even when the story got a little shaky, the writing was just too good to dismiss.

Here’s how the story goes: Eli is a professional badass. He knows all the tricks of the nomadic scavengers who steal, rape, and kill to survive. He knows his way around swords, guns, and arrows. He can hunt and forage and take advantage of what little shelter still remains. In short, he knows how to survive. And he’s walking through a mysterious desert on an unknown destination. He carries with him a thick, leather-bound, gold-leafed King James Bible, with a big lock to keep it safe. He reads from it nightly. This, for those who don’t understand how titles work, is The Book…of Eli.

The Bible becomes the MacGuffin in this western story, which pits Eastwood-esque antihero Eli (played by Denzel Washington in the movie) against raving maniac Hawthorne (for reasons unknown, his name became Carnegie in the movie, and Gary Oldman played him). Eli is on some sort of unknown quest that has to do with keeping the Bible safe. Hawthorne (I’ll just call him Carnegie from now on, to avoid confusion) wants the Bible for himself, because although he doesn’t exactly remember its content, he remembers the power its words wielded over the world. He wants that power for himself. Right now, he controls a small California town from the luxury of an abandoned movie theatre. He wants more for himself, and he sees the Bible as the way to get it. Even before Eli’s arrival, he sends his crew of illiterate bikers out to scavenge for books. Nobody’s found one.

When Eli arrives in town to get a battery recharged (he uses a car battery to charge a worse-for-wear iPod, which is great product placement for Apple, but the condition of my well-maintained four-year-old iPod suggests to me that it wouldn’t actually weather 30+ years and an Apocalypse), Carnegie is intrigued by his presence. In stark contrast to the rest of the survivors, Eli and Carnegie remain able-bodied and mentally intact. They can both read, and they both know how to stay alive in this world.

Carnegie’s interest in Eli increases when Eli dispatches several of Carnegie’s toadies, who tussle with him in a bar fight. In an attempt to curry favor, Carnegie offers Eli food, lodging, and the “company” of a young barmaid, Solara (played by Mila Kunis). Eli has no sexual interest in the girl, but Solara finds him fascinating. She wants to know about the way things used to be, and neither Carnegie nor Solara’s blind mother will satisfy her curiosity. The next morning, when she says grace before breakfast, Carnegie realizes what Eli has. This sets up the conflict that drives the rest of the script: Carnegie will stop at nothing to get what he wants, but Eli’s the only man in 100-mile radius who won’t play by Carnegie’s rules.

The script takes its time establishing the world and the characters before descending into an orgy of well-written, deeply satisfying violence. While on the run from Carnegie, Eli and Solara develop a sweet, father-daughter relationship. The writers wisely keep this far, far away from anything romantic, a refreshing change of pace. It builds to a twist-filled third act that satisfies because the writers manage to make the twists rely on the characters’ perceptions of each other, not on some weird mindfuck for the audience.

The familiar elements of the story—it’s pretty much a classic western structure, right down to the shootout on Main Street—are energized by the harrowing post-Apocalyptic backdrop and the writers’ impressive attention to detail. They never take for granted the way the priorities in this world have changed (after spending the night in the home of a man who, at some time in the distant past, hanged himself in a closet, Eli trades his beaten-down walking shoes for the dead man’s pristine pair) or the fact that the younger characters, notably Solara, have never experienced the way things used to be. All they’ve ever known is this hellhole, and the writers never hit a false note in portraying that. Even when Eli, late in the script, describes his “religious quest” to Solara—the idea that, after a year of wandering the ruins of his planet, “a voice” began speaking to him, led him to the last remaining Bible, and told him exactly where he needs to take it—the writers never say, “He really did hear God talk to him,” which leaves some impression that he could just be crazy. The script has ample opportunity to get stupid, but the writers never overplay their hand.

The finished film is a different story. Remember all that talk earlier about not “over-writing” a screenplay for fear of “directing on the page”? Well, the Hughes Brothers don’t fear directing on the page, because there’s not a scene description that’s been written that they can’t over-direct. The Hughes Brothers have style to spare, and they direct The Book of Eli with a flare that frequently detracts from the drama at hand. Their artistic tricks can be very effective, particularly during action sequences (the siege on the cannibals’ house in the second half of the film is staggeringly impressive). The quieter moments don’t fare so well, lending a glossy, comic-book feel to a script that’s about as gritty and depraved as The Road, just with a lot more ass-kicking and a nice spiritual message.

The Book of Eli‘s overt message—that the Christian Bible is the most important thing in all of civilization—doesn’t have much to do with why I liked the script. Call me a heathen, but I don’t have a religious bone in my body. However, as someone who’s paid attention to human history, I’d be an idiot not to acknowledge that—whether I agree with it or not—the Christian Bible is, at the very least, one of the most important things in all of civilization. The script is remarkably secular, however. It preaches the importance of the Bible as a tool for enlightenment and understanding. That’s really all it is: a book of fables designed to help people understand the world in which they live. There have always been people like Carnegie using it as a weapon of exploitation, which is one of the great strengths of the script. Neither Eli nor Carnegie seems to have found religion—they’re just two men who understand the Bible’s role in shaping human history.

This subtlety gets lost in the finished film, in which Washington plays Eli like a stoic apostle whose function is to spread the word on behalf of a God he really does have a personal relationship with. Meanwhile, Oldman plays Carnegie as a greasy, simpering asshole. Both of these guys are typically fine actors—among the best of their generation—but their performances here lack the shades of gray that exist on the page to the film’s great detriment.

Speaking of performances that miss the mark: Mila Kunis. She impressed the hell out of me in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but she plays Solara as too tough and streetwise to make her interest in Eli ring true. In the script, she’s timid and sort of mousy, naïve and gleeful about anybody who can connect her to a past she missed on account of not yet being born. This characterization makes some of her stupider decisions—such as saying grace in front of Carnegie and following Eli out of town—pretty believable, but that believability gets lost in Kunis’s glowering read on the character.

A perfect example of the Solara problem comes early in the film, when Eli reads a Biblical passage to her. Keep in mind, this is the King James Version, which is full of “thees” and “thous” and other Elizabethan words Solara would never have heard before. Solara responds with, “That’s beautiful—did you make that up?” Although that moment in the movie does not exist in the draft of the script I read, it’s the sort of response that would have fit with the wide-eyed naïveté of Solara on the page. However, it rings false when Kunis says it—a more believable reaction for her take on the character would be along the lines of, “What the hell does ‘maketh’ mean?”

Worse than that—I hate to get shallow, but she looks like she just walked off a Vanity Fair shoot. Washington, Oldman, and even Jennifer Beals as the blind mother are all dressed down and grimy. To paraphrase Mystery Science Theater 3000: “In the future, survivors rub themselves with old oil filters.” Kunis sticks out like a lovely, lovely thumb in this universe. She’s clearly wearing makeup (especially evident on Bluray), which it’s hard to believe exists in a world where hotel-sized shampoo bottles are a novelty, and she even makes post-Apocalyptic fashions look stylish. I’m not sure who thought it was a good idea to make her look that good and that different, but every second she’s on screen is bound to take viewers out of the moment. It just doesn’t fit.

Although the performances aren’t necessarily bad, the story loses much of its impact as a result of the actors’ handling of the characters. Moments that worked beautifully on the page just don’t hold up.

Maybe the direction is to blame for the performances, in addition to the comic-book sheen. After all, what the script describes as rusted-out junkers rumbling through abandoned streets becomes, in the film, Mad Max knockoffs plated with so much armor it’s amazing the suspension doesn’t just collapse. A sequence of nail-biting suspense, in which Eli and Solara unwittingly enter a house occupied by cannibals, is played like a bad Three’s Company episode. Finally, the finished film leaves audiences with no choice but to accept that Eli is, indeed, a shepherd of God’s word, led by the Big Man Himself on his quest. Eli literally gets shot in the neck in that Main Street shootout, but nothing happens—not a scratch on him. This moment does not exist in the script, nor should it.

I know this article has sounded like relentless hostility, but that’s more tricky gray area: I didn’t dislike the movie. It’s passable entertainment. I have an issue with it because it could have been great, a well-written, multifaceted exploration of the positive and negative effects of religion on society, with tons of ass-kicking. Not as emotionally draining as The Road, but a movie that’s nonetheless filled with smart ideas and a complex point of view. Whatever the reasons, the finished film robs the script of its subtlety and complexity, which makes it a disappointment despite its merits.

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Quigley Down Under (1990)

In the ’80s, the U.S. experienced a short-lived fascination with Australian culture. I chronicle this fleeting obsession in detail in my 3500-page nonfiction book Why the ’80s Should Hold Nostalgia for No One: Essays on Unpopular Culture. Quigley Down Under came at the tail-end of this cultural shockwave, right around the time Americans started to pay attention to Australia’s dark side and lost interest in the country. A well-made if unexceptional western, the film doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does tweak the conventions just enough to remain compelling and avoid the most obvious clichés of the genre.

The story revolves around Matt Quigley (Tom Selleck), an American sharpshooter who arrives in Australia to work for Marston (Alan Rickman). Immediately after his arrival, he encounters Crazy Cora (Laura San Giacomo) being forced onto a wagon to work as a prostitute for Marston. When Quigley discovers Marston has hired him to kill the aborigines on his land (“They always manage to remain just out of rifle range,” he laments), he reacts by tossing his new employer through a glass door. Not surprisingly, Marston has his men take Quigley and Cora (who is convinced Quigley is her husband, Roy) out into the desert to kill them. That Quigley manages to escape from certain death and rescue Cora comes as no surprise.

The remainder of the story focuses mainly on developing the difficult relationship between Quigley and Cora. This is the film’s major strength, as it allows Quigley to have more depth than the traditional taciturn outlaw, and it allows Cora to become one of the western genre’s great female characters, on par with Jill McBain from Once Upon a Time in the West or, I don’t know, Cat Ballou. When finally revealed, her backstory is heartbreaking, and the way it shapes her current actions (including mental illness that may or may not be affected to keep others at a distance) makes the development of her relationship with Quigley a treat to watch.

The battle of wits between Quigley and Marston is almost relegated to “subplot” status, but that’s okay because it’s a little disappointing. Selleck and Rickman both do fine work in their roles, but the screenplay has them separated for nearly the entire film, which makes their mutual disdain less than palpable. Marston’s only solution to the Quigley problem is sending more men after him. Considering the ease with which Quigley keeps killing his men, it seems like Marston would think outside the box a little. Nevertheless, the final showdown—which, true to Marston’s wide-eyed obsession with American cowboys, echoes the quick-draw cliché of many westerns—is satisfying.

Director Simon Wincer does a great job showing off his native Australia. Despite the story’s somewhat unsavory, anti-Aussie bent, he makes every shot look like an inviting, panoramic postcard. Although he does a fine job with the banter-laden romantic scenes between Quigley and Cora, Wincer struggles—as I imagine any director would—to make the action sequences truly exciting. When the protagonist’s main method of dispatching the bad guys consists of shooting at them from great distances, there’s only so much he can do to make it a thrill-ride. Luckily, the story focuses more on the romance than the action, so these awkwardly orchestrated sequences pass by quickly enough to continue enjoying the movie.

All in all, Quigley Down Under is not a perfect movie. The hero hides behind rocks and shoots at people from ¾ of a mile away, the villain is marginalized throughout most of the second act, and the direction is competent but uninspired—yet the performances and the presence of Crazy Cora make up for the movie’s other flaws. It’s a fun, consistently engaging neo-western.

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Thirteen Days (2000)

Docudramas are a precarious high-wire act. A filmmaker must take an event well-known by the general public and pack it with the drama and suspense necessary to make a quality film. A writer must manipulate facts in order to create a dramatically satisfying narrative without straying so far from the truth that it might as well be fiction. Actors must portray well-known figures without coming across like a Saturday Night Live impressionist—impeccable, yet soulless. In all cases, even the tiniest misstep can cause the whole film to fall apart instantly.

Despite Kevin Costner’s attempt at a Boston accent, Thirteen Days doesn’t make those missteps. It takes place largely in three rooms within the White House and focuses primarily on “special assistant to the President” Kenny O’Donnell (Costner) and the Kennedy brothers (Bruce Greenwood as the President, Steven Culp as Bobby—both excellent), but it manages to have a sweeping, epic quality. The film gives audiences a fly-on-the-wall view of the Cuban Missile Crisis, 13 days in which the U.S. and Soviet Union hovered on the precipice of nuclear war. Like the film itself, the events depict a diplomatic dance, and any tiny misstep could have potentially destroyed the world. Stakes don’t get higher than that.

The story wisely presents itself as a talky political thriller. It avoids melodramatic pitfalls by emphasizing the work, not the personal lives of the people doing the job. It defines the characters by how they react to the discovery of incomplete Soviet missiles on Cuban soil, rather than showing their family lives. Only O’Donnell’s family is seen, but writer David Self and director Roger Donaldson handle these moments with appropriate restraint. Even O’Donnell’s desperate warning for his family to leave town doesn’t go over-the-top. The dialogue (much of it allegedly taken directly from recordings Kennedy made during this time) crackles with tension without being too showy or clever.

More than anything, Thirteen Days is a film about strained working relationships—within the federal government, between the U.S. and the Soviets, between the Kennedys and O’Donnell—trying to remain civil during a difficult time. The drama and suspense comes from these long-existing tensions finally boiling over. Excellent acting across the board helps to convey the characters’ thinly veiled hostility without spelling everything out. Every role has a lived-in feel, including what amounts to glorified cameos by Christopher Lawford and Charles Esten as pilots who sense danger when they keep getting calls from the President and his inner circle. Even Costner, despite his struggles to maintain a working-class “Southie” accent, does a terrific job as O’Donnell, who effectively serves as the conscience for the Kennedy brothers.

Despite his varied career, Donaldson has never made as good a film before or since, which is disappointing. He manages the nearly impossible feat of making the familiar Cuban Missile Crisis into an unpredictable, nail-biting thriller. He also shows great skill at working with actors that doesn’t really shine through in films like Species or Dante’s Peak.

Thirteen Days holds up as one of the most well-made docudramas of recent years. It’s well worth seeing for anyone interested in the Cuban Missile Crisis but not quite interested enough to pick up the daunting 800-page book on which the film is based.

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