A Droid Premiere: The Raven (2012)
I’ll be upfront and honest, I’m not very familiar with the works of Edgar Allan Poe. I haven’t read anything by him apart from The Raven and The Telltale Heart. I also know absolutely zero about him personally. I only discovered when looking him up just prior to seeing this film that he died at just 40 of an unknown ailment that has been the subject of much conjecture. He only wrote the most famous of his works in the last five or six years of his life, and at the age of 26, he married his 13 year old cousin. Nowadays he’d be hearing a rap-rap-rapping at his door alright. And a rap-rap-rapping up the side of the head as he’s dragged off in shackles. My how times have changed.
Once upon a midnight dreary, and from the looks of this film, Baltimore in 1849 was very dreary indeed, the famous, but drunken and penniless writer Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) is pondering where his next drink is going to come from. He’s also pondering how to get published as well as how to woo the much too good for him Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve). Elsewhere the police have cornered a murderer in an apartment, but are flummoxed when they break down the door and the room is empty but for the bodies of a woman and child. Police outside the door, window nailed shut, chimney stuffed to bursting point with a dead body. The killer has seemingly vanished into thin air. Inspector Emmett Fields (Luke Evans) quickly deducts the escape route and declares his familiarity with the murder scene. He’s read Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue! When a second murder takes place, one that is particularly gruesome, and appears directly inspired by torture chamber of The Pit and the Pendulum, Fields enlists the help of Poe in the investigation. What is the connection between Poe’s works and these otherwise unrelated murder victims?
‘The Raven’ is, I’ll put it bluntly, unsuccessful. As a murder mystery it’s unsatisfying. As a period gothic horror it’s uninspired. As a portrait of the man, Edgar Allan Poe, it’s unrevealing. As a thriller, it’s uninteresting. Unbelievably I’ve run out of un’s, so I’ll move on.
To his absolute credit, unlike his made-for-radio ‘Ninja Assassin’, director James McTeigue keeps things visible. It’s a good start. He also keeps things moving at a fairly brisk pace, and there are some sequences that almost come together. But overall the film feels small. Maybe it was limitations of budget, but Baltimore in 1849 seems walled in, confined to within the limits of the films frame, perpetually blanketed by a layer of fog. I didn’t really believe that the characters lived in a functioning city, one that lived and breathed beyond the images placed in front of me. I don’t recall a single wide vista establishing shot that would show us the world, and expand the universe of the film (something the recent ‘Anonymous’ provided with great effect on a limited budget). As a result the scope of the film feels downsized. It’s not a film that requires the widescreen your local cinema. As a matter of fact, it would very likely play a lot better at home.
However, McTeigue’s direction isn’t the films biggest problem. As with any murder mystery, it’s the plot that makes or breaks the film. Written by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, ‘The Raven’ is a poorly plotted, less than intriguing and rather mystery-free story that relies heavily on the audience not caring about credible motivations or the logistics of the villains movements throughout the films time frame. Unless the audience is satisfied with some sort of clutching at straws Annie Wilkes-style motivation that is. Personally, I wasn’t. A film like this requires one or two carefully placed red herrings. Unfortunately every suitable character is allowed to be scratched off the list by the halfway point due to their involvement in the onscreen action.
There’s also issues with dialogue, where Poe will directly explain (almost direct to the camera) which poem or story the film is referencing. While this is obviously intended for people (like me) who are largely ignorant of the mans writings, it comes across as unsubtle exposition. I feel these references could have been worked into the screenplay in a less obvious way. I would imagine it would also only serve to irritate any Poe enthusiast who might take some pleasure in spotting unmentioned references. A reward for those in the know, so to speak. Lastly on the writing front, some of the dialogue really sticks out as being a little too modern. This is a common complaint of mine in period films and TV (I keep noticing it in Game of Thrones), and it only serves to distract me. There’s a moment early in ‘The Raven’ where Poe is an unwelcome patron of a pub, and a man confronts him with the line “You won’t be smiling when you’re picking your teeth off the floor with broken fingers”. This is a comment I’ve heard used quite a bit over the years (mostly as a joke), and I simply didn’t believe it as dialogue from 1849.
The element that saves ‘The Raven’ from being a total disaster is the performance of John Cusack. While I have strong misgivings with the accuracy of the portrayal (baseless really since I know very little about Poe, it just feels inaccurate), Cusack gives it his all, and brings a great deal of energy and also brings weight to proceedings. You can really sense Cusack trying, and his performance touches on many different moods, from the comedic, to desperate and tragic. He’s a likeable actor, and you end up on his side, willing the film to get better. Unfortunately, the film fails to do credit to his good performance.
In support, it’s hit and miss. Alice Eve as the love interest Emily and Brendan Gleeson as Emily’s disapproving father Colonel Hamilton, are solid, if unremarkable. Because the film never develops the back story between Poe and Emily, we never really know enough about their relationship to get involved. Assumptions have to be made, especially with Colonel Hamilton running Poe off at gunpoint during their first on screen encounter. We assume it’s because Poe is a 40 year old penniless, drunken reprobate, but that’s as much as we can go on. But to be honest, if a guy like Poe came sniffing around my daughter, I’d chase him off at gunpoint too.
A film like this can improve greatly, or at least get a pass, if the actor in second billing puts in a memorable performance, as evidenced by Jude Law’s Watson in the Sherlock Holmes’ films. Unfortunately, the main supporting character is Luke Evans as Inspector Emmett Fields who has the emotional range and energy of a turnip. How on earth this guy is getting big roles is beyond me. This is a third dud I’ve seen him in, after Tamara Drewe and Immortals (apparently he was in Clash of the Titans and Robin Hood, but I don’t remember him). He has one facial expression, the chiselled chin and furrowed brow. His dialogue is delivered in a monotonous gruff grunt, and he has all the charm of a cane toad at midnight. I’m not sure how this guy has risen to point of second billing, but his luck’s got to run out sooner rather than later.
‘The Raven’ has the foundations for a fun movie, including a good central performance, the writings of a creatively morbid author that could have been entertainingly exploited for a series of gruesome crimes, and a director that has obviously remembered that film is a visual medium. Unfortunately the faults outweigh the positives two to one. The mystery isn’t up to snuff, the villain is less than credible, and the scale of the film feels limited. This is, at best, a film to watch at home, where I feel it will play better. Certainly don’t bother seeing it at the cinema.
I bestow ‘The Raven’ 1.5 Barts out of 4.