Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Movie Review: The Raven

The Raven ** Directed by: James McTeigue.
Written by: Ben Livingston & Hannah Shakespeare.
Starring: John Cusack (Edgar Allan Poe), Luke Evans (Detective Fields), Alice Eve (Emily Hamilton), Brendan Gleeson (Captain Hamilton), Kevin McNally (Maddux), Oliver Jackson-Cohen (John Cantrell), Jimmy Yuill (Captain Eldridge), Sam Hazeldine (Ivan).

I’m not going to pretend to be a big Edgar Allan Poe fan, but I have read some of his work, and enjoyed it highly.  He remains known, more than 150 years since his death, for his horror stories, which were shocking in their day, but tame by today’s standards. Yet it isn’t because of the violence that people still read Poe – it’s for the writing itself, which is creepy and poetic. His writing, while violent, is built on that poetic language, and the mounting sense of dread and madness in his best known works. They contain blood and murder, but that is not what defines them. That will be what defines The Raven, the latest movie inspired by Poe however. But this is not an adaptation of his work, but a serial killer thriller that has Poe as its central character – because his writing has inspired the killer. So the police, obviously, enlist his help to try and capture the killer.

The movie is set in Baltimore in October of 1849 – the final weeks of Poe’s life. Poe (John Cusack) is broke, trying to eke out a living based on his writing, but really spending most of his time trying to get a drink. He is in love with Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), the daughter of a figure of some importance in Baltimore, Captain Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson), who of course hates Poe. But when a mother and daughter are murdered, and the cops cannot figure out how the killer escapes, since the door was locked from the inside, and the window nailed shut, Detective Fields (Luke Evans) is called to the scene. When he figures out how the killer escaped, he remembers a story he read where the killer did the same thing – and calls in Poe as a suspect. And when a rival of Poe is killed in the same way that Poe described in The Pit and the Pendulum, the plot thickens. It seems someone is killing people in the way Poe described to draw him into a game of cat and mouse. When Emily is kidnapped, the stakes are raised.

The Raven may have failed immediately by casting John Cusack as Poe. This is not an insult towards Cusack, who is a talented actor. Had this been a real biopic of Poe, portraying him as the tormented soul he is, Cusack may have been able to pull it off. The problem is The Raven is not a biopic – it is an over the top, bloody serial killer movie with Poe as a Sherlock Holmes type character. As a result, Cusack seems too subdued to be effective in this role. Someone like Robert Downey Jr., Johnny Depp or even Nicolas Cage could have very easily gone into the over the top theatrics that is required for this movie to be effective. He isn’t aided very much by his cast mates. I could never really get a read on Luke Evans, who seems at times to want to channel Downey’s theatrics as Sherlock Holmes, but was holding back to overpower the rest of the movie. Brendan Gleeson is a great character actor who can do this role in his sleep – and unfortunately, that it what it appears like he does this time out. Alice Eve is certainly beautiful, but she lacks personality in this movie – and her role is underwritten.
Directed by James McTeigue, The Raven is violent, special effects laden serial killer film that at times seems to be trying to be a gruesome horror tale, yet never quite gets there. McTeigue’s first film as a director was V for Vendetta, but as each new film comes along (he reshot much of the horrible The Invasion with Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman and made the forgettable action film Ninja Assassin before The Raven), it’s beginning to feel more and more like it was producer, The Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix), who really had control of V for Vendetta. This is because while McTeigue’s films since his debut have been technically fine, they do not share the same attention to detail, story and acting that his first one did. The Raven just never really gets off the ground.

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