Review: The Raven
Quoth This Reviewer,
By Tom Houseman
May 2, 2012
“Everyone loves gore,” says the editor of the Baltimore Patriot on more than one occasion, imploring Edgar Allen Poe to write more works of horror. But what makes Poe such a brilliant writer, and what makes his work so memorable, is not the blood and guts, but Poe's mastery with words. His poetic descriptions and use of repetition are what make a poem like The Raven so hauntingly beautiful. “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing/Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”
Poe's choice of words is so careful, so delicate, so perfect, as he is able to use rhyme and meter effectively to create a chilling atmosphere for the reader. Not a word is wasted, each syllable artfully crafted to add to the tone of the piece. I am gushing about Poe's talent not just because there is so much over which to gush, but as a point of comparison, because everything that makes the poem The Raven so extraordinary is exactly what is not done in the movie The Raven, which is sloppy, stupid, and ineffective as either mystery or horror.
In creating an homage to Poe, director James McTeigue and writers Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare could not have done a worse job. Sticking Poe into the middle of a crime story in which the murderer is recreating some of Poe's most famous works is as generic idea as they could have come up with, and feels like an episode of Murder She Wrote by way of Alan Moore if Moore had no talent and creativity. McTeigue's directorial debut, V for Vendetta, was an ambitious mess of a film, but The Raven cannot even claim to be ambitious. It is a simple film directed poorly, with scenes cut together in a way that entirely eschews clarity. We are reliant on long scenes filled with weak and frustratingly anachronistic dialogue to give any sense to the plot.
It is always entertaining watching brilliant and clever people be brilliant and clever, but in order for a film to be built around such a protagonist, it is somewhat necessary for that protagonist to merit having those two adjectives prescribed to him. Some actors can pull this off (it's basically all that Robert Downey Jr. does anymore), but John Cusack has made a career as the common man, and that is what he does well. Cusack fails miserably to play the part of the misunderstood genius, his mocking barbs feeling memorized rather than off the cuff, which drains them of any cleverness and makes his Poe come off as completely dull.
Even being surrounded by a wildly bland group of supporting characters only highlights how uninteresting Poe is as a protagonist. Cusack at least looks like he is trying, even if the result is that he comes off as trying too hard. Every other actor on screen seems to be going through the motions, waiting for McTeigue to yell cut so they can start drinking (none of them seem to be enjoying themselves enough to give the impression that they have started drinking yet). Alice Eve is a profoundly bland love interest, making it impossible for us to care about the love story that is driving the plot. Brendan Gleeson seems so uninterested in the goings on that he couldn't even bother to figure out what kind of accent to use, and Luke Evans could have had a wooden plank stand in for him in most of his scenes. Even the actors with only a few other lines looked like they had someplace else they'd much rather be.
The Raven aspires to be a macabre modern horror mystery, maybe a bloodier, moodier Sherlock Holmes. And there is some gore, but not enough to appease fans of the Saw franchise, not enough to be shocking, which seems to be its intended purpose. And when all is said and done, is there anything that a movie about a serial killer leaving clues for the cops, always staying two steps ahead of them, can do that would be new or interesting? If there is, none of it is present in The Raven. If seeing The Raven convinces you to read more of the work of Edgar Allen Poe, then it can be considered a success, but those are truly the only parameters under which that word is applicable.