Directed by James McTeigue
Screenplay by Ben Livingston, Hannah Shakespeare
John Cusack, Alice Eve, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Luke Evans, Kevin McNally, Pam Ferris, Sergej Trifunovic, Ian Virgo, Sam Hazeldine
How long is The Raven? 111 minutes.
What is The Raven rated? R for bloody violence and grisly images.
A Descent into the Doldrums
I should begin by stating that I am not an expert in the works, life, or personality of Edgar Allan Poe. However, I have seen both the Lisa’s Rival and the original Treehouse of Horror episodes of The Simpsons at least 10 times.
The Raven is a piece of historical fiction about what happened during Edgar Allan Poe’s (John Cusack) mysterious last days. The film theorizes that he spent his final week, give or take, working as a consultant to the Baltimore Police Department who were trying to capture an unstoppable madman whose kills were inspired by Poe’s works.
Despite my initial misgivings, I came to realize that this is an idea that could be crazy enough to work, provided that the film accepted the ludicrousness of its premise. This could either mean treating it with the same over-the-top zeal as the Sherlock Holmes franchise or truly embracing the darkness of Poe’s oeuvre and turning the film into some unrepentantly disturbing horror tale along the lines of Se7en. It wouldn’t be enough to simply use the kill devices utilized by Poe’s characters, the filmmakers would need to embrace the soul of his works.
Unfortunately, The Raven follows neither take. Instead, the film adopts the path of least resistance and develops a truly uninspired and hackneyed serial killer tale. The type where the madman kidnaps Poe’s girlfriend Emily (Alice Eve) and leaves clues to Poe and Detective Fields (Luke Evans) because he is so enamored by Poe’s brilliance and wants to play a game with him. The revelation of the identity and “motive” of the mystery man is cheap, if not downright hilarious. The ultimate conclusion also bears an unmistakable taint that forces you to ask “these people know we’ve seen movies before, right?”
A lot of these problems are in the script. Writers Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, whose research into Poe quite possibly extended to Wikipedia synopses of his most famous works, apparently got a mere outline produced as a major motion picture. Far too many moments come across as “this is what we want the character to mean, we’ll work on what he says later.” Much of the time, it felt as though they didn’t even bother to “downdate” the language or style of a more modern serial killer thriller to fit the late 19th century setting of the film.
But a good portion of the blame must be laid on John Cusack. As Edgar Allan Poe, the film rests on his shoulders. Cusack is something of a cult figure. And he has done some good work in smaller films over the past decade or so, but he is terrible in this film.
The problem with Cusack’s performance is multi-fold, but it mostly comes down to genius. Poe, presumably, is supposed to be a brilliant writer who hasn’t received the critical acclaim he is rightfully due, instead squandering his life as an alcoholic with nary a penny to his name, forced to waste his talents on the lowest job a writer can do — being a critic. But this Poe lacks the unhinged genius quality required for us to see him as above the masses. Whatever one might say about Downey Jr.’s take on Sherlock Holmes, you got the sense that the legendary fictional detective truly was apart from humanity. At best, Poe seems like a slightly above average guy whose iconic status is part of some mild delusion of grandeur. Showing a posthumous legend as no more remarkable than Jeff Daniels’ character in The Squid and the Whale might have been an interesting take, but not one the film chooses. This isn’t to say that all legendary figures need to be deconstructed into sheer nothingness, but something needs to pick up slack when the person lacks that essential air of greatness that warrants the importance surrounding him more than a century after his death.
Similarly, Poe doesn’t come across as an alcoholic or drug addict, which are both labels applied to him throughout the film. It attempts to show his alcoholism by having him drink constantly, but even at his most drunk, he just seems like a well-composed snob. Cusack fails to imbue Poe with the stink of the boozehound.
The rest of the cast fares moderately better by being more bland than awful. Alice Eve is the damsel in distress who is enamored with Poe, and Poe with her. As Fields, Evans, who looks remarkably like former Baltimore cop portrayer Dominic West, is given the personality, or lack thereof, of most law enforcement personnel in movies like these. The chemistry between Poe and Fields is virtually nonexistent, as the film seemed hesitant to commit to them being actual partners. Brendan Gleeson is essentially what you’d expect as Emily’s disapproving father. Only the person playing the villain apparently understood the inherent goofiness of the proceedings.
Director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) comes out the best from this movie. He has a good visual sense for this type of period piece, and he wisely doesn’t rely on extensive, CGI-heavy action sequences to move from plot point to plot point. With the exception of an early death sequence that relied way too heavily on computer generated blood to its eternal detriment, he also successfully pulls off most of the “gore” scenes.
More in the vein of Kiss The Girls or The Bone Collector than anything remarkable, The Raven is a boring disappointment. Feeling like a cheap picture with a decently sized budget, it lacks the necessary weight and emotional impact to represent the final chapter of Edgar Allan Poe’s life. Yet it doesn’t have franchise potential, unless The Raven was meant to kick off a series about Fields buddy-copping across the world with legendary authors. It’s no stupider an idea than what birthed The Raven.