Film Review – The Raven
If Edgar Allan Poe joined the X-Men, his mutant name would be “The Raven” and his talent would be the ability to quip while drunk. He would have some anger control issues (just like Wolverine), but Professor Xavier would still send him out on his first mission: hunting down the serial killer from Se7en. Sounds like a great movie pitch, right? No? Okay, how about this one. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—long angered by Edgar Allan Poe’s disdain—suffers a mental breakdown and goes on a killing spree in Baltimore, threatening to destroy all Poe holds dear. In order to save his true love, Poe must write a positive critique of Longfellow’s latest poem, and make the readers believe he means it. Interested yet? No, really? Okay fine. Poe is desperate for cash, since his ability to write macabre stories has dried up and no one will publish his criticism pieces. The father of his newest love interest hates him, but his lady wants to get married anyway, even though Poe is a huge drunk and cannot support her. A series of murders is also taking place in Baltimore, and it soon becomes clear that they are modeled on the plots of Poe’s stories. At first a suspect, he is brought in to answer for his actions, but when it is realized that he cannot be the culprit, he is asked for his help to solve the clues the murderer has left behind. Matters become personal when his fiancée is kidnapped by the killer, and he must race against time to save her life.
The makers of The Raven decided to go for the third scenario, which, while clever, does not grab me the same way that the Longfellow pitch did. There is a mildly humorous scene early in the film, where Poe’s excoriating criticism piece on Longfellow gets yanked from the newspaper, and a poem by the despised poet gets printed instead. For most of this film I kept hoping beyond hope that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the villain, and I was very disappointed when it turned out not to be the case. (This took place only in my mind, so don’t worry about it being some kind of a spoiler.) The possibilities of poet-on-poet trickery seemed so much more exciting to me than what actually happened in the film, because I was, in the end, very, very bored by The Raven. And I really shouldn’t have been; this movie contains carriage chases, shoot-outs, explicit gore, mysterious villains, hapless maidens, male bonding, and really beautiful ball gowns. All of the components of a big action thriller are here, but it turns out that’s not enough to make a good movie. Most action films follow a variation of a formula, and that formula is there for a good reason—it works. A good example of this genre will take those things that have proven successful (chases, bullets, oily chests, etc.) and place them in a solid underlying structure—basically, an engaging story. The Raven seems like a good idea, but one cannot just throw in all the modern tropes of an action film, add some period costumes and a guy named Poe, and call it a day. The point of interest in this movie is supposed to be that it features Edgar Allan Poe. Then why is it so empty of anything Poe-like?
Yes, there is a character called Edgar Allan Poe, played by John Cusack, but he bears little resemblance to the actual Poe except for some similar facial hair. The historical Poe was a complicated man—interested in writing, cryptography, and booze. The Raven’s Poe is an uninteresting man who mostly reacts to events happening around him rather than having any agency of his own. He supposedly has a severe drinking problem, but he doesn’t have much opportunity to drink and there are no side effects from his abstinence: no delirium tremens or even a cloudy thought. Which is a shame; this film would have benefited greatly from a late-stage alcoholic lead who struggles to save his lady-love from doom while trying not to drown in his own vomit. But, instead, we get a very bland leading man who doesn’t do much but be dourly heroic and occasionally get into fights.
The biggest wasted opportunity in this movie is the lack of Poe in the film’s tone. Poe’s stories and poems are of a dark, gothic, and often-ironical nature. There is none of that here. This film has no mystery, no flavor, no sense of time or place. It takes place in 1849, but rooms are as well lit at night as they would have been had the 60-watt bulb been invented; there is none of the darkness and fear contained in Poe’s stories. Bad things happen (including extremely gory things), but it’s not all that interesting because there is nothing to ground the events in a world that the audience is intrigued by. The basic plot points of some of Poe’s stories have been lifted to create the situations in this film, but none of the qualities that made Poe’s writing so memorable were taken with them. It’s a thriller with a few thrills and no chills. Competently directed by James McTeigue, it’s not a horrible travesty, but by the time the third act rolled around I just wanted it to be over. (I also thought the ending was kind of stupid, but I was so unengaged by the film that I couldn’t be bothered to care.) There are many inaccurate, but fun, Poe-related films out there, such as The Man with a Cloak (with Joseph Cotton and Barbara Stanwyck) or Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death, that are much more inventive with Poe’s legacy than The Raven is, and I recommend seeking them out rather than watching this film squander every chance it had of being something cool.
Final Grade: C-