In John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009), the lessons that the father teaches the son come out of personal experience and direction; but here in The Book of Eli, there is a return to an ancient text, an old religion. The values on offer in The Road are subject to questioning, to testing, whereas there is something assumed about the values in The Book of Eli, and that attaches something sanctimonious and sentimental to the endeavor.
Before the film is over, each character is forced to face the other—to attempt a peace—and also to face his own inner workings, what he does and why he does it and how to become a better man. A change of heart and change of mind are necessary but are made to look easier than they would be in life, where the system—the network of institutions and public beliefs—that rules contemporary American lives is not easily defied or defeated, and remains unchanged though the men have changed.
It’s pleasing to me that work that so vitally concerns us—the strictures of class and gender (the vulnerability of women, particularly those without inheritance), and the unlikely relation of love to many marriages—should be the subject of classic literature and the kind of film that’s seen to have much prestige. It’s an affirmation that important ideas can be presented in graceful ways, besides being a wonderful story that contains some truth about human nature.
The pacing of the film is natural, as is its look and the acting in it, and this is a very believable story, and it gives us the many quick-changing moods of real life. It makes the calculation—and the lies and partial truths—ordinarily presented in a typical Hollywood film seem even more unnecessary.
Paradise Now, directed by Hany Abu-Assad, presents the landscape in which the Palestinians are massed—its rocky hills, its trees, its poor neighborhoods—and shows some of the communal rituals—simple meals of vegetables, bread, and sauces; and smoking a water pipe. When Said comes home late, his young brother talks about how he would have been reprimanded if he’d come in that late; and when the same boy asks if his mother has used a new water filter—he says the water tasted better before—his mother tells him to turn off the radio he swallowed, meaning he’s too smart-talking.
The film is an amusement, and yet it asks provocative questions about love, deception, and justice—and it makes accessible a form of culture (the play by Marivaux) that might otherwise seem distant to us—and it provides us the opportunity to imagine other ways of being in the world, and, not least, the chance to laugh.
Peter Sarsgaard as the writer, Campbell Scott as the producer, and Patricia Clarkson as the wife give performances that are etched with believable emotion—whether concern, desire, grief, or anger; and the people in the film seem civilized in manner—articulate, intelligent, informed by culture, while acting in duplicitous ways; and this is a uniquely vicious film—indicating a dishonest, immature, malicious, and narcissistic sensibility.
It’s funny: I had been thinking of Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley shortly before seeing Down by Law, wondering if they were giving us stories that were more true than that of many other film directors; wondering if their work was more important than we would be led to believe by the celebration of other directors.
It was interesting to see that what is made into satire now are things that used to be subtext but that we all know to look for—the no longer buried male need for other men (the homoemotional/homoerotic); and in the film, as some commentators have pointed out, that can occur in certain slippages of language, certain “accidental” incidents of physical closeness, etc.
What is fascinating is that, thanks to the rehearsals we see and hear, rehearsals in which the young woman musician’s improvisations add something good to the music, the film is a musical, one that emerges naturally.