The Raven (2012) – Directed by James McTeigue – Starring John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Kevin McNally, Brendan Gleeson, and Sam Hazeldine.
Hey. You. Yes, you, the reader. THE RAVEN was released yesterday and I’m reviewing it today. Beware that this isn’t a newspaper review that talks about the film without giving anything away. I’ll give away anything I want. This is your warning. If you just want to know whether you should go see the movie or not, the answer is a resounding No. It is aggressively not good.
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I admit to going in to THE RAVEN with two theories on the film. The first was that James McTeigue’s film seemed like an attempt to do an American Sherlock Holmes in the Robert Downey Jr. tradition. The second was that I was marginally okay with that, and definitely intrigued enough to see how they would attempt to pull it off given that John Cusack barely has a fraction of Downey’s charisma.
Going in, then, I was expecting to be most reminded of the Guy Ritchie Sherlock films. Coming out, however, there is but one movie that THE RAVEN most closely resembles in my head:
For those who haven’t seen the Nic Cage-starring supernatural witch movie, that is not a positive comparison. Like WITCH, THE RAVEN is a quasi-historical film in which our lead actor does not bring out the best in the admittedly shallow material he’s been given. Like WITCH, THE RAVEN is a dreary action movie. Like WITCH, the star is surrounded by a few professional veterans and a bunch of lesser known actors doing their best to wring something out of this script. Like WITCH, THE RAVEN made me spend much of the movie wondering what, exactly, this film said about the lead actor’s career. And most importantly, like WITCH, THE RAVEN makes me wonder why it was ever made.
If you are like me and head into RAVEN expecting to see an Americanized Ritchie/Downey Sherlock film, then you will find your expectations left wanting. THE RAVEN is many things but a good time is not one of them; this is a movie with dreary material that’s matched by a dreary lead. Cusack’s Edgar Allan Poe isn’t Downey’s Holmes, but it hardly matters since the movie doesn’t ask him to deliver any charm or spunk or fire. It simply asks him to whine, act confused, and have a few vague instances of inspiration.
Cusack can do that, of course, because he’s been playing that role his entire career and often to great effect, but he’s utterly terrible here. (Ironically, when discussing the film with the person I saw it with, I said, “I generally like Cusack but he’s awful here” and she said, “I generally hate him, but thought he was okay in this movie,” so take that with your salty grains.) He looks lost from start to finish, and none of his emotional displays are the least bit convincing. Whether he’s trying to bluff his way into getting free drinks from a local bar, yelling in anger at his publisher, being romantic with his lady love, or confronting the killer, Cusack plays it all with varying degrees of blankness on his face. His lack of range on display here is truly astounding and, like Cage in WITCH, sad.
My biggest complaint about THE RAVEN is that I’m not sure why it was made or who it was made for: it’s an action movie with a dull lead, a mystery with no suspect, a thriller with no thrills, and a race against the clock with little sense of urgency.
The opening title card tells us that Poe died in 1849 under mysterious circumstances, so you know right at the start that we’re going to get a downer of an ending. Our first sequence has a bunch of cops storming an apartment building. They can hear a woman screaming but when they get to the room they hear the door lock. They bust it down, find the woman dead, another woman stuffed in the chimney, and no possible means of escape. Make that no visible means, as Detective Fields (Luke Evans) soon discovers that there’s a trick lock on the nailed shut window. Evans soon remembers that he read something similar in an Edgar Allan Poe story, and he has the burned out writer brought in.
It’s hard to think of a more inappropriate historical lead for a film like this than Edgar Allan Poe. (You know, among writers, and not like, world dictators, or serial killers, or something.) Poe would be a fantastic lead in a dark, moody, slow-burning mystery, but THE RAVEN is too interested in rushing through the story for the dreary Poe to work. Part of the problem there is that they’ve hired James McTeigue to direct the film and while McTeigue is a perfectly fine action director, he doesn’t get to the dark underbelly of humanity like, say, David Fincher. (This is only McTeigue’s third film in the big seat after the perfectly fine V for Vendetta and the unseen – by me – Ninja Assassin, but he’s been an assistant director on the Matrix movies and Star Wars: Episode II.) In terms of pacing, RAVEN plays like a perfectly fine action movie. There’s not a lot of sitting around and waiting here, and if the material matched the pacing, we might have had something.
At the start of the movie, Poe is recently returned to Baltimore and nearly bankrupt. He’s romancing Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve) on the sly as her father, Mr. Hamilton (Bendan Gleeson, supporting a very impressive beard), hates Poe. This whole angle is dumb as it tries to cast Poe as a daring, dangerous love that’s wooing the beautiful daughter of a rich man of high societal standing. This might work fine if we were getting the adventures of Young Mr. Poe (or Young Cusack playing Young Mr. Poe), but Poe’s a forty-year old man, not some roguish bad boy, and Cusack doesn’t have any of the charm that someone like Downey or Johnny Depp has to make these scenes believable.
Poe is brought in as a suspect, but quickly everyone realizes he’s of more use as a consultant rather than as a possible killer. So Poe and Fields team up to stop the killer, who quickly ups the stakes by kidnapping Emily and sticking her in a coffin somewhere. The killer wants to play a game with Poe, taunting him to catch him and … stuff happens. It’s all so bland because apart from one gorier-than-it-needed-to-be nod to “Pit and the Pendulum,” nothing else in the film resonates in a manner that recalls the best of Poe. It just ends up being bloody killing after bloody killing. Poe stands around, looking pensive, and then declaring “Masque of the Red Death” as if it means anything in relation to the story. It doesn’t, because no sooner are we at one murder scene then we’re off to the next. Any actual connections between the murders and Poe’s stories might be a nice touch, but is completely irrelevant to the film.
(Heck, at one point, Poe insists, “I never wrote about sailors,” even though he wrote The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which is full of sailors.)
Where THE RAVEN probably should have taken cues from a movie like Seven, it has more in common with films like The DaVinci Code or National Treasure, as everything moves so quickly from scene to scene that the details are marginalized.
THE RAVEN is the kind of film that has to yell at you to remind you that the plot is supposed to be urgent and the characters are supposed to be desperate. The key scene to what’s wrong about THE RAVEN comes during Fields and Poe’s investigation. Poe’s house has been set on fire so he heads to the home of Fields for shelter. Fields is pouring through evidence, and Poe is clearly frustrated about the lack of progress and worried about Emily. Fields calmly tells Poe that when you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, you need to look at each piece of hay, but Poe is furious at this idea and violently shoves everything off Fields’ desk and screams at him.
“What would you have me do?” Fields asks. “Run through the streets yelling her name?”
Actually, Fields, that’s exactly what this film seems to have wanted you to do, when I think it would have been better off playing it closer to your line of thinking.
The decision to have Poe’s lover Emily be the kidnap victim is probably the single biggest mistake the film makes as it robs us of any potential for fun and so instead of having a game of cat and mouse where our lead would be detached from the victim and thus able to have a bit of inappropriate fun for our enjoyment, Poe is hysterically driven to find the kidnapper. The film’s climactic scene between Poe and the killer/kidnapper Ivan (Sam Hazeldine) is a sit down verbal sparring session that crackles with all the electricity of an 1849 street lamp. If you’ve seen the Steven Moffat-penned “A Study in Pink” from his Sherlock TV series, you’ve seen this verbal sitdown-showdown bit done infinitely better than it’s done here.
Poe insists on knowing where Emily is and Ivan is disappointed Poe doesn’t want to dig into the darker side of human nature. Poe just wants to get to the end because he wants to save Emily; I understand his choice but not the narrative’s.
THE RAVEN is a movie that’s constantly fighting itself, but it won’t have to tussle anymore with me, because I can’t imagine watching it again.