Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
April 2012

The Raven

Edgar Allan Poe: Serial Killer Hunter

The great writer's personal coda is rewritten in tediously gruesome 'The Raven'

The Raven
Rogue Pictures
Director: James McTeigue
Screenplay: Hannah Shakespeare and Ben Livingston
Starring: John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve, Kevin McNally and Brendan Gleeson
Rated R / 1 hour, 51 minutes
Opened April 27, 2012
(out of four)

The Raven uses the mystery of Edgar Allan Poe's last days as a jumping-off point for a grisly potboiler that refashions the writer as something of a reluctant detective-cum-crimefighter. Its version of Poe is transformed from hopeless drunkard and romantic into a vengeful man pushed to wit's end by a madman who has kidnaped his beloved.

It's a pity the movie never figures out how to get into the psychosis of such a character. The material is robust - the master of the macabre being invited into a battle of wits, a series of crimes inspired by Poe's own savage imagination - but instead the character is thrown into a rote murder mystery, just one in a cast of procedural archetypes, each with a preordained role. In his case, it's the Expert Witness, called in to assist the inspectors working the case. "Ho-hum," the movie seems to be saying about its Edgar Allan Poe. Ho-hum indeed.

But it did get me to thinking. What other literary titans could get the cinematic reinvention treatment? Consider Hemingway as a world-renowned master of international finance. Austen as a swashbuckling warrior-princess. Kafka as a sadistic psychoanalyst conducting thought-experiments on unsuspecting victims. Bukowski as a crusading abortionist. The Marquis de Sade as a fanatical archbishop bent on world dominion.

But I'm getting off-topic. Such creations are not the subject of this review, because those fictionalized characters might actually be interesting. The Raven is not, nor is its take on Poe, nor is Poe himself as portrayed by John Cusack.

Poor Cusack. The guy's one of the most reliable (yet underrated) actors in the business, yet here he labors through a pitifully written part that he's not really suited for anyway. It certainly doesn't play to his strengths. The Raven's Poe is a penniless, humorless boor who spends his evening hours drunkenly quoting his own poetry to anyone who will listen. But he's not even one of those enjoyable vulgarians; he's dull and lacking in wit.

Making the character work beyond its tepid writing requires a kind of gravitas that Cusack doesn't possess. Instead, he gives a performance that is neither sardonic nor menacing - nor even convincingly inebriated. What is, on paper, a tortured soul ends up coming across only as a buffoon who needs attention. Both of those at once would be fine; but just the buffoon? Hardly a compelling protagonist.

The film is in the spirit of Se7en (and to a lesser extent From Hell), with the formula of an anonymous killer (who's always two steps ahead) challenging his pursuers to a sort of game, one whose clues come in the form of butchered bodies he's left scattered about Baltimore. And they're not just butchered like a normal person would butcher someone. No, they're butchered in specific fashion - just the way our Mr. Poe has described in his stories.

Hence Poe's (reluctant) involvement. Detective Fields (Luke Evans) recognizes the staging of a particular crime scene and makes the connection, bringing Poe in first as a suspect and then as a special advisor. The killer's presumed preoccupation with Poe's fictional methods are soon revealed to be something deeper, as he targets Poe himself - or rather, targets the lovely Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), with whom old lovestruck Edgar has been carrying on a courtship for some time, right under the nose of her disapproving father (Brendan Gleeson).

Emily's kidnaping becomes the focal point of the case, the killer leaving clues on each body, with the intended end game of our heroes discovering Emily's whereabouts. Whether she will be alive or dead by the time they find her is the question.

But what could be an intriguing experiment and stylistic mashup ends up plodding along through each body, each red herring, each dead end. Director James McTeigue makes sure to tease us with various hints and possibilities, but what he doesn't seem to understand is that it is the film's job to get us in the mood to be teased. In something as stillborn as The Raven, we most certainly are not.

McTeigue is a former protégé of the Wachowskis; his first official directing credit was 2005's V for Vendetta. I'm beginning to suspect the rumors were true, and that the Wachowskis had more to do with the direction of that film than we were initially led to believe. McTeigue's two efforts since then - Ninja Assassin and now The Raven - have been too methodically bland to be of any interest. I admit, I'm speaking out of turn. But whatever the case, it's clear that neither of his last two films have approached anything near the daring and style of his debut.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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