Director: James McTeigue
Writer: Ben Livingstone, Hannah Shakespeare
Cast: John Cusack, Alice Eve, Luke Evans
Taking its title from Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem, The Raven is a rather imaginative dramatisation of the author’s mysterious last days. Just before his death, Poe was found wandering the streets of Baltimore in a delirious state, wearing clothes that were not his own. However you want to try to explain that, the events portrayed in the film certainly don’t come close.
Serious explanation, though, is not the point. The Raven is a shameless attempt to squeeze in as many of Poe’s gruesome scenarios as is humanly possible in the best part of two hours. The premise is that a serial killer is copying the murders in his stories in an attempt to draw the author into his game. Poe undoubtedly influenced this kind of scenario, as well as virtually everything else in the detective genre, but he would not have written it. It is too fast-paced, too convoluted, lacking Poe’s scrupulous detail and obsessive focus.
While he is best known for the creating the elaborate set-piece murders on show here, Poe’s work relies on psychological interiority and that unique melancholic atmosphere no copycat can reproduce. The problem with The Raven is that it doesn’t even try to do this and, were it not for the protagonist’s name and the continual references to his stories, you’d be hard pressed to tell it has anything to do with Poe at all.
John Cusack plays the title character, and looks the part with the familiar neckerchief and sickly grey countenance. He gives a quirky performance, toying with Poe’s famous verbosity and injecting him with a more playful nature than you might expect. His co-star Luke Evans is less assured, unconvincingly playing a character that most actors could play in their sleep; Detective Fields is not exactly C. Auguste Dupin. Better might be expected from V for Vendetta director James McTeigue, but he is unable to create any sense of mystery or tension, relying too much on source material which he is unable to successfully recreate. The ending is very much a case of pulling a killer out of a hat.
It is perhaps unfair to judge the merits of a film against the work of a great 19th century author and, despite its shortcomings, The Raven is not all bad. It’s a watchable, if not exactly thrilling, thriller and there are some good scenes, usually, well always, carried by Cusack. Poe’s relationship with Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve) is given a poetic edge and his descent into melancholy gives the film an extra dimension. It has the right look too, especially during some of the set pieces, although it must be said that some of the bigger ones are a let-down. The Pit and the Pendulum and The Premature Burial are given disappointing treatments, flawed in that they appear insignificant. McTeigue removes from the former story the horror and (necessarily) the dimension of time; the audience want nothing more than to see the pendulum fall, which is a fatal flaw. And we know exactly how the latter will pan out, eliminating the sense of claustrophobia.
As a by-the-numbers serial killer flick, The Raven would have been adequate enough, but it promised much more. When treated like this, the references to Poe cannot make up for the lack of originality, and, whether you are a fan or not, there is nothing new to see here.
Extended version of a review originally published in The Student on 13 March 2012