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
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.