A film review by Craig J. Koban May 13, 2012
2012, R, 111 mins.
2012, R, 111 mins.
Edgar Allan Poe: John Cusack / Det. Fields: Luke Evans /
Emily: Alice Eve /
Col. Hamilton: Brendan Gleeson /
Maddox: Kevin McNally
Edgar Allen Poe was, of course, an American author, critic, and poet and was one of the forerunners of modern psychological horror and tales of the macabre. While living in 19th Century Baltimore he slaved away trying to eek out a meager living as a writer; when he was not doing that he gorged on a self-destructive lifestyle of alcohol and drugs.
On October 3, 1849 he was
found on the streets of Baltimore in apparent mental distress, babbling
incoherently. He was taken to
Washington College Hospital and later died four days later.
Great mystery to this day surrounds his infamous demise; newspapers
indicated that he had “congestion of the brain” whereas the actual
cause of death remains uncertain. For
a titan of the literary world – known for being the granddaddy of
mystery fiction – to die under such unsolved circumstances is the height
of cruel irony.
THE RAVEN – whose name is
taken from Poe’s 1845 narrative poem of the same name, noted for its
dark and dreary supernatural tone and highly rhythmic language – is a
new period murder mystery thriller that does two things: (a) it provides a
fictionalized explanation as to what happened to the real-life Poe upon
his fact-based death and (b) places Poe within the backdrop of an
imaginary storyline regarding a demented serial killer that models his
grisly crimes on scenes from Poe’s own masterful literary canon.
Die hard purists of Poe as a figure of crucial historical
significance in the annals of written fiction may balk and cry a
resounding foul at the notion of inserting the real life author in a faux
storyline (yes, yes...Poe was not a detective or a serial killer hunter),
but for those in the audience that appreciate pulpy, speculative “what
if?” scenarios, then THE RAVEN is for you.
The film begins not too long
before Poe’s enigmatic death. A
mother and daughter are found brutally killed in mid-19th Century
Baltimore, after which Detective Emmett Fields (Luke Evans, unflappably
stone cold and piercingly determined) decides to take the case and
eventually makes a shocking discovery: the crime seems to be proverbially
ripped right from the pages of a story written by a local struggling - and
frequently inebriated - writer, Edgar Allen Poe (John Cusack).
Initially believing that Poe himself may be a suspect, Fields takes
the overly anxious, twitchy, and socially stilted author to police
headquarters to question him…but then another ghastly murder occurs –
inspired and bloodily recreated from Poe’s THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM -
while Poe is in custody, which makes him innocent of the previous and
current crime, but nonetheless a key expert when it comes to Fields
discovering the killer’s next move.
Poe begrudgingly agrees to
help Fields' investigation, seeing as they both feel that it’s only a
matter of time before the madman strikes again and uses another of Poe’s
works as a form of perverse inspiration.
Things get very personal for Poe when his own fiancé, Emily (the
beautiful and headstrong Alice Eve) is kidnapped by the perpetrator and
places her in a hidden location that can only be discovered after Poe and
Fields follow a series of precisely left clues at each subsequent murder.
Realizing that the longer Emily remains captive the more inevitable
her likely death will seem, Poe and Fields respectively pool their own
unique resources together in order to end the perpetual onslaught of this
deranged serial murderer once and for all.
The Poe as presented in the
film is a curious amalgam of the facts about the real life writer and some
intriguing exploratory character traits that make him a juicy figure of
high melodrama. Poe here is
the obligatory starving and impoverished artist: melancholic, obstinate,
inwardly tortured, suspicious of everyone unlike him, and a masterfully
talented creative mind that uses a colorful dichotomy of poetic words to
criticizes the world around him that he feels holds him back.
Cusack wisely understands that the key to playing this film version
of Poe is to capture his overt theatricality, his creepy indifference, and
his detached and drolly understated resistance to everything that’s
thrown his way. With his minutely groomed goatee, anxiety plagued eyes,
perturbed vigor, and flowing black cloak, Cusack’s Poe is a delectably
unhinged, nervously flamboyant, and gloriously verbose anti-hero.
It’s refreshing to see a protagonist in a serial killer
procedural that’s not a self-assured action hero; Cusack’s Poe is a
fidgety caldron of unease and despair that owns every frame of the film.
THE RAVEN was directed with a
workmanlike precision, proficiency, and consummate polish by James
McTeigue, who previously worked as an assistant director to the Wachowski
Brothers on THE MATRIX trilogy and made his feature film debut with his
thrilling and thematically evocative adaptation of Allan Moore’s V
FOR VENDETTA, which I placed on my list of the Ten
Best Films of 2006. McTeigue
has a nice and understated eye for period detail in THE RAVEN and never
allows himself to wallow in flashy and eye-fatiguing visual or editorial
gimmicks. Astutely and
appropriately shooting in Budapest, Hungary, and Belgrade, McTeigue gives
his film a sense of period veracity with minimal use of distracting CGI
augmentations. There are
times, though, where he lets his penchant for stomach-churning gore get
the better of scenes that would be more taut and frightening without it
(the scene involving the killer recreating a death from THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM
comes to mind). Yet, McTeigue
crafts a handsome and headstrong production that keeps the pacing and
narrative momentum confidently striding forward.
If THE RAVEN were to have a weakness then it would be in the area of its resolution, where the reveal of the killer does not shock as much as it should and a final confrontation between Poe and the villain seems painfully labored and rushed. Many critics have also lashed out at the film for bastardizing Poe and his iconic work for the sake of transplanting it in a dutiful mystery yarn, which is a bit amusing. THE RAVEN – unlike another faux-historical costume dramas like ANONYMOUS – neither takes itself too solemnly nor too preposterously to the point of coming off as pure camp. The was-Shakespeare-a-fraud plot of ANONYMOUS played itself out itself as laughable fact, which made it come off as unintentionally hammy. The makers of THE RAVEN don’t vulgarize the legacy of their literary subject matter because they are not trying to pass off their what-happened-in-Poe’s-final-days scenario as anything but fiction. They use Poe as a creative muse to tell a well made and reasonably involving period thriller, which is what makes THE RAVEN such a nonsensically pleasurable diversion.