moviebuff801: The Raven Review

Posted: October 16, 2012 by moviebuff801 in moviebuff801's Movie Reviews

Release Date: April 27th, 2012

Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes

Written by: Hannah Shakespeare, Ben Livingston

Directed by: James McTiegue

Starring: John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve, Brendan Gleeson

Quoth The Raven: “Meh.”

Set up as a sort of macabre mix of Castle and From Hell, The Raven seems like it can never quite decide what it wants to emulate more: Saw or Sherlock Holmes.  To the film’s credit, the idea is there, and it tries with all its effort to turn all of this into something solid, bless its bloody heart, but it does so in a pretty muddled fashion.

The film’s idea is thus: the time is 1849, Baltimore and the lauded Edgar Allen Poe (John Cusack) is falling on rough times.  He barely has any money to his name and spends quite a few nights drunkenly walking the fog-shrouded streets, trying and failing to use his famous name to his advantage.  Poe is also courting a beautiful woman named Emily (Alice Eve), much to the disapproval of her influential father (Brendan Gleeson), who’s not above, say, holding Poe at gunpoint.  Needless to say, Poe is in dire need of something big in his life, and that something comes, in the Poe tradition, as a grisly murder spree.  But here’s the catch: the murders all imitate ones found in Poe’s work, specifically “The Pit and the Pendulum.”  This prompts Detective Emmett Fields (a droll Luke Evans) to bring in Poe as a consultant on the case, and as an effort to try and stop the killer before he strikes again.

If I could pick one word with which to describe The Raven, I’d have to go with uneven.  On the one hand, there’s the inspired casting of John Cusack as the famous writer, the film touts a real flair for gothic production values including a nice blend of soft oranges and cold blues, and then there’s the undoubtedly interesting story hook.  But on the other hand, the film never really demonstrates a firm grasp on tone and the script is pretty flimsy, to say the least.  It all starts out promising enough, but then sort of loses its way.

Let’s start with John Cusack, who happens to be one of my favorite actors.  As a fictionalized version of Edgar Allen Poe, Cusack is very good, if over the top.  But that’s part of the charm of his performance: as a writer of gruesomely outlandish Penny Dreadfuls, Cusack’s portrayal is appropriately, and entertainingly, outlandish on more than one occasion.  But Cusack is a wise-enough actor to know when to dial it down and let the material speak for itself.  However, some of that scenery-chewing gives the movie a bit of indigestion.

Partly because of Cusack’s performance and partly because of director James McTiegue (of V For Vendetta fame), The Raven can never seem to decide whether it wants to play it straight or tell in the story in a way approaching farce.  Some of the other actors’ line readings at times feel like they’re missing a sly wink to the camera, what with how hokey pieces of the dialogue can come across.  It feels like McTiegue directed this film without a clear sense of direction in mind for it.  He makes it look all well and good and paces the thing just fine, but the story itself is pretty paper-thin.  I guess most of this has to do with the screenplay, which felt like it needed more work.

As scripted by Hannah Shakespeare and Ben Livingston, The Raven plays out more like an extended episode of a by-the-numbers procedural T.V. show.  As a result, the film has no bite; there’s no spirit to the slaughter, nor a tightly-wound sense of peril to the overall proceedings.  Just like its protagonist, the movie wanders through the story in a very melancholic fashion.  People are abducted, suspects are chased and corpses are frighteningly uncovered, but there’s never any real sense of urgency.  Even when someone close to Poe is buried alive, it feels as if the screenwriters are just killing time.  And the revelation of who the killer is seems more like an afterthought.  In addition, Poe is really the only fully-developed character in the movie.  Everyone else is essentially there just to fill space and contribute to the plot as-needed.

Now, that’s not to say that I think The Raven is a failure, or even all that bad, for that matter.  It’s actually quite efficient in the way it rolls out the story, despite its issues, and it never really does anything to warrant offense.    Though, at one point, a character does punch through a piece of wood with their bare hand.  But for what is essentially just a run-of-the-mill serial killer mystery, there’s still a certain craft about it that helps it remain moderately entertaining, though John Cusack definitely bolsters it some.  I was certainly never bored with it, and I enjoyed it enough as I was watching it, but I never really cared that much about what was going on.  Part of me sort of wants to give it a pass, but the other part of me just says, “Pass.”

**1/2 /****

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