Sometimes a film makes you wonder if Hollywood truly is running out of ideas. Or maybe director James McTeigue just wanted to put John Cusack in period dress and the Sherlock Holmes franchise was already taken. Tone-deaf, The Raven squanders an intriguing idea with dull action set pieces and an unfocused theme. The plot revolves around grisly murders that replicate Edgar Allan Poe’s most horrific works in an attempt to get the not-so-famous Poe to solve the case in Baltimore. For those unaware, this isn’t based on a true story. Hit the jump for my full review.
Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) is a down-and-out, underappreciated writer languishing in 18th century Baltimore. He can barely afford a drink at a bar and when he attempts to find people that have heard of his work he is met with crickets. Then he finds a fan he wishes he hadn’t. A spree of murders that bear a remarkable resemblance to Poe’s work leads to him being implicated, but Inspector Emmett Fields (an intense Luke Evans) and him begin to work together when it becomes clear someone has a twisted sense of fandom. Poe takes a slight interest in the case but when his forbidden love Emily (Alice Eve) becomes the damsel in distress, the stakes are raised to a new level. Fields and Poe must race against time to solve the intricate clues that touch on several literary works in order to stop the criminal and save the girl.
There’s little secret that McTeigue’s previous two films—V For Vendetta and Ninja Assassin—have been mixed to poorly received by critics respectively, and the screenplay by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare makes some pointed commentary on critics. Perhaps this is one of those cases of getting a new car and seeing the exact make and model everywhere. I doubt it is coincidence, though. There’s also some interesting commentary on gore in stories, as Poe’s longtime newspaper editor mentions again and again, “people love the gorey stuff.” They then proceed to slash off hands in gruesome fashion or cut people in half, showing every slice and allowing you to hear the blade at the end of a pendulum cut through the gristle. One character’s death shows his throat sliced and we can see the wound clearly while hearing him gurgle on the blood in a violent death.
I’m not easily affected by a gruesome violence, but this goes above and beyond as the camera isn’t shy about showing off the effects. My audience seemed to be filled with people unsure of the tone. Laughter could be heard during dramatic moments, particularly in the beginning, but when the grisly murders first started there was a collective gasp. They seemed confused as they were presented with a conundrum. Was this a fun film, a dramatic work, a comedy? There are laughs, but not enough to be considered comedic. Drama is present, but it is mostly lifeless. And while my initial feelings were that I had a good time, I realized my personal life was bleeding into other areas as I was just glad to sit down and turn off my brain. At least the costumes are great.
While most of my friends inside and out of the industry seem to dislike McTeigue’s first film, V for Vendetta, I quite enjoyed it. I love how he got both of his principal actors in that film and this to deliver long-winded rants with intricate vocabulary on numerous occasions. However, where Vendetta had something to say and did it in a fun wrapper, this film seems to exist for purely entertainment purposes and manages to fail at that goal. The bad guy has no real motive it seems and of course outpaces anyone and everyone. He can kidnap people under stout security, shoot accurately from long distances—in the 18th century, no less—and evade capture by simply outrunning someone. Perhaps the film will spark interest in Poe’s literary work but that is unlikely to be the direct byproduct of this film’s quality.
The Raven feels like a missed opportunity. The setup had a lot of room to go really out there and get crazy. Instead they have settled on violence being the one notable feature while everything else falls to the wayside. At least in Poe’s violent works he had substance behind it. Evans is the true bright spot here, but at times his overblown seriousness is comic relief when it would be dramatic intensity in a film with an even tone. Edgar Allan Poe has a secure legacy. That’s why it’s a shame McTeigue and crew couldn’t have given him more than a dull thriller in his name.