Friday, April 27, 2012

The Raven - 2012

Director:                         James McTeigue
Screenplay:                    Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare
Original Music:               Lucas Vidal
Cinematography:           Danny Ruhlmann
Film Editing:                   Niven Howie

Edgar Allan Poe             John Cusack
Detective Fields              Luke Evans
Emily Hamilton                Alice Eve
Captain Hamilton            Brendan Gleeson
Maddux                            Kevin McNally
John Cantrell                   Oliver Jackson-Cohen
Captain Eldridge            Jimmy Yuill

On this blog I truly love talking about the old movies and I have reviewed very few recent films.  Today I went to see “The Raven” which just opened in theaters.  As a horror fan, a John Cusack fan, and a Poe fan, I was looking forward to “The Raven”.   Now I can’t stop going over it in my mind, so I may as well sit down and go over it here.  If a movie sticks in my mind, it is usually because  a) I enjoyed it very much, or b) I hated it.   I can’t honestly say either in this case. 

I didn’t have any false hope that it would be a masterpiece, but I was hoping for something fun, a little bit horrific and maybe even a little bit realistic.  I was disappointed on all counts, and I guess that is what is bugging me.

The movie started on a promising note.  After a short introduction to Edgar Allen Poe, we go back five days to see what has brought him to where he is now.  The setting is Baltimore, 1849.  Police are responding to screams in a boarding house.  When they break down the door, what they find is gruesome and the situation seems impossible.  How could the murderer escape from a locked room?  The scene is photographed well.  It is realistically dark as pitch in the room, the only light comes from the lanterns the police have with them.
John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe
The murder scene rings some bells in the mind of Inspector Fields, a man with a reputation for solving difficult crimes.  He realizes that the setting and method used in the murders are exactly as Poe described in his story “Murders in the Rue Morgue”.  At first naturally, it makes Poe a suspect, but the Inspector very quickly figures out that Poe could be helpful in solving the crime.  We then embark on a series of bizarre murders, all staged with reference to Poe stories.  Poe and Inspector Fields work together to find the solution.  It’s an interesting and promising take on a murder mystery.
Luke Evans as Inspector Fields

Luke Evans and John Cusack
Unfortunately instead of delivering a story in a compelling manner, it descends into familiar serial killer territory.  This is the land where the killers are always clever to the point of genius, the murder plots are so complex and intricate they are like Rube Goldberg machines and their success depends on each minute detail playing out precisely.  And, luckily for the murderer each human being behaves in exactly the way needed to fulfill the scheme.  The film becomes an exercise in how many bizarre ways can the victims be dispatched.

(L to R) Jimmy Yuill, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, John Cusack, Luke Evans

The biggest problem here is the script.  It’s dull.  I can’t even give you examples of any lines because I can't remember any.  As for the characters, none are developed to any degree and most of the victims are unimportant so why should we care?   I admit that I did not spot the murderer (I usually don’t) but most seasoned movie watchers probably won’t have a lot of difficulty.  One of the disappointments for me is that the killer is not really very interesting, either for himself or why he is doing all this. 

The unimaginative direction doesn’t help.  The movie drags and there is no tension developed, which is a disadvantage to what is intended as a mystery.  The overheated score tries to tell us that there is tension, but it is mistaken.  I can think of at least two scenes which were padded well enough to be dropped from a great height without breakage.  A CGI effect showing a bullet speeding toward its target is clever but jarringly out of place for the mood the movie is trying to evoke.  It’s an effect just for the sake of an effect.  The fact that up to this time director McTeigue has been first unit or assistant director on action films such as “Speed Racer”, “Star Wars II – Attack of the Clones”, all three “Matrix” films and director of "V for Vendetta" may explain some of this.

But the actors seem to be doing their best with what they were given.  Brendan Gleeson is excellent as the gruff father of Poe’s beloved.  He is the actor I was watching in each scene he was in.  John Cusack is an actor I enjoy.  He is capable of bringing to life honest characters in either drama or comedy.  But he just doesn’t quite make me believe in him here as Poe.  Cusack brings his usual energy and passion to the role, but most of the time I just thought, hey it’s John Cusack wearing a mustache and beard.  At 45 years old, Cusack looks younger than his years.  Edgar Allan Poe was 5 years younger than that when he died, but after a lifetime of tragedy and dissipation, contemporary photographs show him looking much older than his 40 years. 
Brendan Gleeson (left), and Luke Evans

The one clever idea in this film is that the murders are based on Poe’s work.  His stories, masterfully horrific and original, are also beautifully written poetry.  But the movie wastes them to make a routine slasher/horror/whodunit.   They really deserve better than this.  For me, this movie doesn’t work because it lacks any semblance of his poetry or his soul

Someday perhaps someone will make a clever and thoughtful story around the life of Poe.  It could even be a murder mystery.  Much of his life is a mystery, particularly his death.  This film attempts to provide an explanation of the particulars around his last days, but it just doesn’t wash.  At the end of the film we see Poe sitting in the fog, alone and forgotten.  In reality he did die alone and forgotten after being found incoherent on a Baltimore street, and he did mention the same name with his dying words as in the movie.  But the solution to the mystery as presented here?  No sale.  

I’m going to resist the temptation to end this with any quote using the word ‘nevermore’.  I won’t be that trite.  I went to his poetry and found this, the first few lines of the poem, The Spirits of the Dead.  I think they are appropriate for thinking about, not this movie, but about Edgar Allan Poe.  The real Poe. 

 Thy soul shall find itself alone
‘Mid dark thoughts of the gray tombstone
Not one, of all the crowd, to pry
Into thine hour of secrecy. 

Have a comment about this post?  Please, be my guest.  Indulge yourself below.  I would love to hear from you.  Thanks!


  1. Despite a handful of narrative missteps and a few errant accents, it's actually a pretty neat "what if?" story. Although I can definitely see it's not for everyone to sit and enjoy. Cusack was also pretty good and definitely lifted up this material. Nice review Joyce.

  2. Thank you Dan! I agree, it is a very interesting "what if" concept. I've never been disappointed in Cusack before, but I really feel it was the script that let him down this time. I'll stick with him! Thanks again for the comment!

  3. Hi, Joyce!

    First of all, congrats for you wonderful review not only commenting on the movie ( which I'm still deciding whether I'll watch or not )but also on Poe's life.
    I'm a brazilian english teacher and in June I'll be working on a reading and speaking project with my students. I decided that this month's theme would be Edgar Allan Poe. My advanced students will be working with the "Black Cat" short story, my basic students will be working with a short biography of his and I wanted to work with a review of the movie "The Raven"( which has launched this week around here )with my Intermediate students. I have searched for a good and no so complicated text for them. Not only because of these aspects but as well because of others, I liked very much your review. Would you mind if I use your text - denoting you as the author and the blog as the source - in this project?

    Thank you very much!



    1. Victor -
      Thank you so much for the kind words and for your request. I would be honored if you used my review in your class.

      What a wonderful idea to study Edgar Allan Poe in a language class! His use of words could be simple and direct, or subtle and more complex. I feel his poems and stories always have a delicacy, which may seem odd if you consider the subject matter.

      Thanks again, I'm very flattered! Good luck with your classes, and greetings from Chicago!