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The Raven: Not Bad If You Don't Expect Too Much
Director: James McTeigue
Cast: John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve, Brendan Gleeson, Kevin McNally, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Dave Legeno
The Raven opens up with a title card noting that the famous Edgar Allen Poe died under mysterious circumstances on October 7, 1849.Then, we open up on a scene set on that gloomy morning, where Poe (John Cusack) is sitting on a park bench looking up at the sky, no doubt for the last time. What is he dying of? What does he eventually die of? The movie, directed by James McTeigue (who also directed the excellent V for Vendetta), offers up a fictionalized answer to that question, but I have to admit, it's an admittedly entertaining answer. Oh, make no mistake about it: The Raven is trash. But it's like what the late Pauline Kael used to say: “Movies are so rarely great art, that if we can't appreciate great trash, we might as well stop going.”
The movie opens up with a double murder. A woman is found half decapitated in her apartment, and her 12-year old daughter has been strangled to death and stuffed up a chimney. The police are baffled by the crime. They heard someone lock the door from the inside, but when they finally break the door down, there is no sign of the culprit anywhere. To add to the mystery, all the windows are shut and unbroken, and there does not seem to be any other way out of the apartment. So, how did the killer escape?
The detective assigned to the case, Detective Fields (Luke Evans), notes the similarities between the murder and Poe's story “The Murder of Rue Morgue” (Which is funny, because if memory serves me right, the killer in that story was an orangutang. Personally, I think it would have been a riot if, in the end of the film, the killer was revealed to be an orangutang, but then again, I have a weird sense of humor.) Fields initially assumes Poe to be the culprit, but when Poe's darling love Emily (Alice Eve) is abducted by the killer during an annual masquerade ball held by her father (Brendan Gleeson), Fields enlists him as a sort of consultant on the case.
We do learn the reason behind the killer's rampage, and it's kind of a silly one. Apparently, the madman wants Poe to write a story each day in the local newspaper, recounting the killer's latest crime, and in doing so, he will continue killing and leave a clue to Emily's whereabouts on each body. Do serial killers really do this? I mean, sure, I have heard of cases where murderers wrote taunting letters to the police. But to murder another human being, then stop what they're doing, and deliberately leave little clues at the scene for the police to find? It just seems too much like a screenwriting trick, and it sort of robs the killer of any dimension. He's just another slasher movie villain. It seems like it would have been more interesting had the police tracked him down by profiling his character, instead of him leaving the clues for them to find.
The killer is just not very interesting here, but Cusack's over-the-top performance as Poe is a riot. One of his earlier scenes has him entering a bar, mixing words with the bar tender and a customer. He begins boasting about his fame and, at one moment, issues a “Raven” quoting challenge to the patrons in the place. It is one of many amusing scenes Cusack has, but it isn't until he channels his character's tortured soul that his performance truly comes alive. When we see him writing his stories for the paper, in an urgent effort to save his lover's life, he turns in a surprisingly poignant and compelling performance. Cusack, in other words, carries the film from start to finish. Had a lesser actor been cast as Poe, the movie might not have been as much fun.
Which is not to discredit the work by James McTeigue. He brings an almost surrealistically gorgeous visual polish to the proceedings, and keeps the movie moving at such a break neck pace that the film's 111 minute running time seems to pass by in the blink of an eye. The movie is also carried by a solid supporting cast, with Brendan Gleeson turning in a stellar performance as Emily's overly protective father. The set-pieces are entertaining, and while I have already noted how uninteresting the killer is, I will say this, I did not figure out who it was until it was revealed. The Raven does a lot of things right, and it is an entertaining film.
But will it stay with you for long once the end credits finally roll? Probably not. There is an interesting idea behind the film, and while the filmmakers managed to make an entertaining movie out of said idea, one gets the feeling like they could've done more with it. Take the film's tone as a prime example. There are some scenes which are played for camp, and had the whole film played out that way, it might have been more entertaining. But then there are instances where the film tries to be dark and scary, as though it were trying to be Se7en set in the 1800's, which could have also worked had the entire film played out that way. Of course, Se7en was scary, and The Raven is not. Not by a long shot. The tone is often times so uneven that the film sometimes comes across as unfocused and confused. Had the filmmakers been sharper in their execution, and had they written a killer who wasn't a screenwriting device, then The Raven could have been something special. As it is, it's not bad, it's just not a good as you would hope.
Final Grade: *** (out of ****)