Mark Reviews Movies

The Raven (2012)

THE RAVEN (2012)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: James McTeigue

Cast: John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve, Brendan Gleeson, Kevin McNally, Oliver Jackson-Cohen

MPAA Rating: R (for bloody violence and grisly images)

Running Time: 1:51

Release Date: 4/27/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 26, 2012

The Edgar Allan Poe of The Raven is a mad genius, an attention-crazed drunk, and an intuitive detective. It helps that the case of which he is a part in the last days of his life is tracking down a killer that is replicating the author's more macabre works. It is a great aid to the killer that Poe's oeuvre is filled with such stories.

It's easy to accept almost all of this (Yes, even the detective part: Lest we forget, before Sherlock Holmes, there was Poe's C. Auguste Dupin, whom even Holmes had to knock down a few pegs to secure his own superiority), save for the movie's central plot, which surely would have garnered enough attention from people of the time to become part of Poe's history. The movie has Poe himself serializing a fictionalized account of his adventures with this "serial killer," a pun that must have led to many hearty pats on the back between screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare.

It starts from a place of little mystery that has the potential to be a great one, if a person were prone to conspiracies: Edgar Allan Poe died several days after being discovered in a state of delirium on the streets outside a bar. The movie changes it to a park bench, which is kind. The reason for his death is unknown, because records no longer exist.

The likely solution to that mystery is not a sinister one, but Livingston and Shakespeare use it as the springboard to hypothesize that Poe (John Cusack), through his own work, was indirectly responsible for his own death, instead of the probability that he was directly the cause through his own irresponsibility. The Poe at the start of the movie is an intriguing character. Loudly bragging about his artistic success while at the same time bemoaning his financial failure (The papers only want to publish his stories of the grotesque and have little interest in his recent turn to poetry) at the local tavern, he offers drinks to any man who can tell him what that pesky raven said in his poem. Only a Frenchman can, and then there's the problem that Poe is broke and with a sizeable tab already.

Poe teaches poetry to a women's circle, where he finds the most cynical interpretations of even the most insipid of rhymes. He is infatuated with Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), a young woman of class whose father (Brendan Gleeson), an Army captain, will not stand for his daughter associating with a mere writer—especially one with as sordid a reputation as Poe. She is, by his own admission, the only bright spot in Poe's dreary life.

We're aware from the start that this is not a biography, yet even so, the movie offers a promising and perhaps somewhat accurate view of the author. Cusack is serviceable, if a bit overblown at times, in these introductory scenes, and one can sense his performance become disinterested in the character as that bombastic personality of Poe gradually settles deeper in the mire of the plot.

As Poe's story plays out, elsewhere in Baltimore, Detective Fields (Luke Evans) realizes that a murder scene has an eerie similarity to "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and enlists Poe for guidance. It's a fortuitous move, since the perpetrator of the "Rue Morgue" murders is soon taking it upon himself to orchestrate a greatest-hits medley of recreations of Poe's stories. A poor literary critic is sliced in twain by a pendulum in a pit of sorts (Someone has some issues to work out with this setup). A man dressed as Death interrupts a fancy ball where the host is in denial that anything ill could pass through his door. The police scour the catacombs of the city sewer for a victim buried behind a wall (Director James McTeigue and cinematographer Danny Ruhlmann generally create a fine, dusky atmosphere, though scenes such as this cry out for at least some light for better coherence).

Within each murder is a clue that leads to the subsequent one, and it's up to Poe to unravel the easily decipherable hints to his own work (In one instance, a clue takes them to a production of Macbeth, and more power to the screenwriters for assuming everyone knows why an actress with bloodied hands would do so). There's a race against time, as the murderer has promised to kill someone who is buried alive. Whatever cleverness the premise holds is cheapened by these formulaic routines and the continuous reduction of the plot to a series of chases—through the sewers, above and behind the stage of the theater, in a wooded clearing behind a church. 

It is a clever setup, too, making the constant sabotaging of it all the more frustrating. Livingston and Shakespeare have clearly done their homework in weaving speculation, history, and literature together, but The Raven is undone by the conventional aspects of the mystery surrounding that work. Even the ultimate solution is as tired and anticlimactic as learning that the butler did it.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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