Raven, The (United States/Hungary/Spain, 2012)

April 24, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Raven, The Poster

If Sherlock Holmes can be a yesteryear James Bond and Abraham Lincoln can be a vampire slayer, then who's to say that Edgar Allan Poe can't be the world's most literate consulting detective? With a script co-written by Shakespeare (Hannah, that is) and headlines ripped from Poe's stories, The Raven is period piece fun - at least until it realizes there has to be a conclusion. That's where a certain amount of inevitable disappointment sets in. The curse of the two-hour murder mystery is that the ending never seems to justify the build-up.

The Raven uses some of the real-life mysteries from Poe's final days to form the backdrop of a fictional tale about a serial killer who models his work on scenes from the author's goriest stories. Director James McTeigue doesn't skimp when it comes to showing blood and guts. The murder inspired by "The Pit and the Pendulum" is especially grotesque, rivaling the most extreme scene from any splatter/slasher film. The camera does not shy away from showing the "money shot"; don't expect a cut-away. The graphic nature of this sequence is counterproductive since, for the most part, The Raven is not trying to be a horror movie.

The concept of a mass murderer constructing his "artistry" in blood and viscera while using Poe's body of work as a template has potential, but rarely does the screenplay fulfill its possibilities. The Raven's tent pole is the battle of wills between Poe (as played by John Cusack) and his mysterious opponent. To heighten the stakes, Poe's secret fiancée, Emily (Alice Eve), is kidnapped by the killer. The goal is for Poe to follow the clues left at each murder scene and discover her whereabouts before her death is sealed. Her antagonistic father (Brendan Gleeson) and a dashing policeman, Detective Fields (Luke Evans), aid in the chase.

The decision to keep the killer's identity secret is a mistake. It creates expectations that result in an unsatisfactory unmasking. The Raven would almost certainly worked better had we known from the start who Poe's adversary is; then we could have enjoyed the high-stakes chess game between them without being distracted by applying the Law of Conservation of Characters to figure out who the shadowy puppet master is. Films like The Usual Suspects, which successfully obfuscate the identity of the villain and generate a genuine "gotcha!" moment, are few and far between. The Raven will not be counted among their number.

Cusack provides a credible Poe, much in the mold of the clichéd "tortured artist." The character is an atypical thriller hero - he's melancholy, uses vocabulary above the sixth grade reading level, and rarely gets physical. He looks great with the impeccably groomed facial hair and the billowing black cape (almost like a musketeer). Because Poe is a dour and static man of words, we need someone more physical to act as his sidekick. The somewhat thankless role goes to Luke Evans, who growls his lines as if trying to impersonate Christian Bale's Batman. Alice Eve is criminally underused; she spends most of her time confined in a coffin, although she manages more screen time than Brendan Gleeson, whose command of an underwritten and poorly motivated character indicates he should have been given a much larger part.

For fans of Poe, the movie contains numerous references to his work. Many are obvious; some are subtle. For those who don't know Poe from the Pope, it won't matter. For the most part, the movie plays out like a period piece murder mystery. In fact, the setting is so generic for this sort of film that it might as easily be 19th century pre-Ripper London as 19th century Baltimore. (It is, in fact, the latter. Poe died in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.)

The Raven looks great and is well-paced, but a lack of a compelling resolution makes it an anemic effort. The literate nature of much of the dialogue is undercut by the plot-by-numbers nature of the story arc. While it's pleasant to hear characters speak with sophistication, their flowery lines ring hollow when one considers that the same level of intelligence was not applied to developing the narrative. Like the atmospheric set design, it's window dressing. The Raven contains some nice details and its use of an historical personage is of some interest, but the bottom line is there's not enough that's sufficiently original or compelling to warrant more than a lukewarm recommendation.

Raven, The (United States/Hungary/Spain, 2012)

Director: James McTeigue
Cast: John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve, Brendan Gleeson, Kevin McNally
Screenplay: Ben Livingston & Hannah Shakespeare
Cinematography: Danny Ruhlmann
Music: Lucas Vidal
U.S. Distributor: Relativity Media
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2012-04-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1