Netflix Now: Eli (2019) - Reviewed

The “Creepy Kid” subgenre of horror is a well that filmmakers like to mine endlessly. For one reason or another, children seem to scare us on a deep level. That’s why it’s a bit surprising that there haven’t been too many entries this year. Aside from the decent The Hole in the Ground, nothing else jumps to mind. Leave it to Netflix to fill that void in October with Eli.

Eli tells the story of, well, Eli. Eli is a young boy who suffers from an auto-immune disorder, meaning he’s allergic to the air, dust, water and grass. He lives inside a plastic dome while at home and to go outside, he’s required to put on a hazmat suit. We meet Eli and his family en route to an experimental clinic housed inside a mansion. There, a radical doctor will treat him and hopefully cure him. Unfortunately for the family, not all is what it seems at this clinic, the doctor might not be what she says she is and oh yeah, the house is haunted.

What starts as a decent premise, is quickly cut off at the knees with how dull and predictable most of the movie is. Director CiarĂ¡n Foy (best known for Sinister 2) relies on jump scare after jump scare to build tension. This isn’t inherently a bad thing but when they’re jump scares you’ve seen far too many times; pulling a curtain with nobody behind it, someone behind you in a mirror, it just makes for a slog to sit through.

All of this is exacerbated by the poor performances from the three leads. It’s never fun to pick on child actors and in an effort to refrain from doing that here, let’s just say Charlie Shotwell isn’t given the best material as Eli and struggles quite a bit. Playing his parents are Kelly Reilly and Max Martini, two character actors who you’ll have fun distracting yourself with by wondering where you’ve seen them before. Neither are very good here, playing parents on the brink because they’ve exhausted all efforts in curing their son. It’s pretty tired stuff and Martini, particularly, seems bored with the whole thing.

What really hurts Eli is just how jumbled it is. We have the main plot of Eli seeing ghosts while looking to be cured. The doctor (played by a wonderfully game Lili Taylor, the only actor who strikes the right balance of tone) explains this away as hallucinations from the medication. There’s an undercurrent of faith and religion. There’s a plucky girl (Sadie Sink, Max from Stranger Things) outside of the mansion, trying to get Eli to come play with her. There are brief flirtations with the mother’s possible infidelity. It’s a lot of moving parts and you have a hard time locking into any of them and it just makes for a scattered, forgetful watch.

That is until the last thirty minutes. If you keep up with entertainment news (and if you’re reading this, I’ll assume you do), you may have heard about Netflix viewers’ reactions to the “bonkers” twist in Eli. The thing with most Netflix movies, there’s always a bit of an overreaction to things like that because we live in a world dominated by SEO. Sites thrive on putting up stories like this. Every year we hear about a Netflix movie that was so scary people couldn’t finish it. It becomes a bit hard to believe when we hear it so often.

I’m here to tell you that, while not the craziest thing you’ll ever see, “bonkers” is the correct way to describe the final act of Eli. It comes so far out of left field and the film’s tone jumps into the deep end. It’s wildly inconsistent from the first hour of the film but because that first hour was so lackadaisical and uninteresting, it’s a welcome change. All of the scattered plot lines you couldn’t be bothered with caring about come together and all of a sudden, you’re on the edge of your seat with a giant grin on your face. It’s hilariously silly stuff and one wonders what the film could’ve been had Foy been committed to this for the duration.

Is that enough to save Eli? Not really. The first hour is still very much a slog and in a month where everyone is trying to fill their schedules with horror, one could be mistaken for giving this a go. Don’t. Even with the insanity of the ending, it just isn't worth your time. You could fast forward to the ending and even without context, it’s still ridiculous enough to enjoy. To entice you to at least watch the final half hour, I’ll leave you with one clue and you can go from there. If you like The Flying Nun then you might enjoy Eli’s last act.

--Brandon Streussnig