Written by: Ben Livingston (screenplay), Hannah Shakespeare (screenplay)
Directed by: James McTeigue
Starring: John Cusack, Alice Eve and Luke Evans
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
The only one who can stop a serial killer is the man who inspired him
In The Raven, the work of Edgar Allan Poe serves as the inspiration for a series of horrible crimes. Iíd like to say that The Raven itself can similarly be described as such, but that wouldn't be entirely accurate. Had The Raven been some sort of atrocity, it might have ended up more memorable than it did, as the film that flew its way into theaters is a largely uneventful and uninvolving final product that squanders a wicked central concept and a pretty good leading performance by John Cusack.
Poeís last days are a bit of mystery, of course, and this film imagines he spent them wrapped up in an bland murder mystery and kidnapping conspiracy. Down on his luck professionally, he finds himself living in Baltimore and courting Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), whose father (Brendan Gleeson) disapproves of his overtures. Things become more complicated when a local psychopath begins to orchestrate a sequence of murders inspired by Poeís short stories; at first, Poe himself falls under suspicion, but it soon becomes clear that the murderer actually wants to draw the author into his twisted game, and he even goes so far as to abduct Emily.
The biggest mystery here is how The Raven ended up being so anemic considering itís working from some of the best, most inventive literature in our canon. Thereís so much potential in this concept that gets buried under the leaden and lifeless direction of James McTegiue, who has made a fine looking (but often poorly edited) film--from the production design to the actors (Alice Eve is especially gorgeous to behold)--but has failed to really inject it with any sort of energy. This is the type of film I most hate to run into--somehow, many of its parts are good, but the never come together to form a workable machine. Instead, The Raven plods along and comes across as Poeís greatest hits if they were done by a lounge act; Iíd say youíd find yourself pointing out the different stories being referenced, but the script makes sure you get it. In fact, Poe's primary function in the flick is to serve as a walking library of his own material; whenever another murder is discovered, itís up to him to point out which story served as the blueprint.
If The Raven had ended up being a balls-to-the-wall staging of Poeís work, it may have fared better; instead, it peaks in this respect during the pit and the pendulum sequence, which is unfortunate not only because it comes early on, but also because Saw V did this sort of thing better a few years ago (oddly enough, it, too, was a largely uninvolving and dull mystery). McTegiue opts to focus more on the aftermath and actually attempts to string together a Saw-style game, only the stakes never feel particularly substantial, mostly because the various victims are just cadavers with clues, and Alice Eve might as well be a mannequin tossed into a pine box for 90 minutes. As the movie unfolds, you start to gather that McTegiue and company werenít quite sure what to do with this bit of historical fiction--its central concept is both absurd but intriguing, but The Raven never plumbs the depths of either mode, so youíre left with a movie that just comes off as moderately pulpy--itís stupid, but it doesnít really know itís that stupid. I mean, it features Edgar Allan Poe nurturing a pet raccoon at some points, but other parts come off as being dead serious.
To his credit, Cusack tries really, really hard, and one wonders if he was ever given much direction since his portrayal of Poe is similarly scattershot. We often see the real Poe as a sort of monolith, and few authorsí biographies are so deeply intertwined with their own work; much of Poeís genius is a result of his own tragic and morbid life. However, his works often reveal a playfulness and vibrancy; this is especially true of his own critical works, which reveal him to be an opinionated, acidic character, and Cusack taps into that pretty early when he dials up the smarminess and plays up the agony of being a genius among philistines. So Cusack gets to rant and rave and even be a little ribald before dialing it back down a bit to brood (because thatís what we expect from Poe). If his character is ever infused with any empathy, itís because Cusack puts it there, though Iím not sure if that isnít just due to the fact weíre watching John Cusack. He looks the part, but itís hard not to see him as the same sleepy-eyed, slack-jawed good guy weíve known for three decades now, so he doesnít quite fully inhabit the role.
The Raven attempts to poke into some heady territory, and I actually like how itís a retro riff on the meta trend. On this front, it even takes a neat turn late in the game where Poe is forced to write new material to keep the game going, and itíd play out as an incisive look at the extreme lengths fans will go to claim their favorite works if McTegiue were smart enough to take it there. Instead, The Raven itself feels like a bizarre bit of fan fiction; Edgar Allan Poe was a lot of things: a poet, a critic, a drunk, and a genius. As a fictional hero trapped in his own detective story, however, he falls a little flat; in fact, if Poe himself could somehow write a critique of The Raven, itíd probably be more entertaining than this movie. I think he would especially like to know how the film earns its title outside of featuring a handful of ravens and a scene where Poe recites his most famous poem. On that note, save The Raven for a midnight dreary, but donít be surprised if you find it weak and weary. Watch it once and nevermore. Rent it!
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