THE RAVEN (2012)
Directed by: James McTeigue
The cast includes:
- John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe
- Luke Evans as Inspector Emmett Fields
- Alice Eve as Emily Hamilton
- Brendan Gleeson as Captain Hamilton
- Oliver Jackson-Cohen as PC Cantrell
- Kevin McNally as Maddux
- Sam Hazeldine as Ivan Reynolds
- Pam Ferris as Mrs. Bradley
- John Warnaby as Griswold
James McTeigue’s third feature film, “The Raven” (2012), sets out to explain the last days in the life of the American writer, Edgar Allan Poe. The author of such macabre works as “The Masque of the Red Death“, “The Black Cat“, “The Fall of the House of Usher“, “The Cask of Amontillado“, “The Pit and the Pendulum“, “The Tell-tale heart” and “The Raven” among many others, Poe’s untimely death was as mysterious and as tragic as the tales he wrote.
[NB: I suggest you don’t read too much about Poe’s death till after watching the film if you don’t want to spoil the ending. However a link to read all about it is at the bottom of this page is you can’t wait that long.]
So what’s it about?
The script, written by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, takes up the tale in the Baltimore of 1849 where we find the, far from celebrated, writer Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) is on his uppers. and verging on alcoholism. Crippled both by his intolerance of other writers and a lack of new ideas of his own to write about, Poe does not have his troubles to seek. When the love of the young socialite, Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), offers him a way of redeeming himself through marriage, he clings to the idea like a drowning man holding on to a life ring.
The only fly in the ointment is that Baltimore has become endangered by a devilishly dedicated serial killer whose modus operandi includes referencing the works of one particular writer: Edgar Allan Poe. Then when the lovely Emily is kidnapped by the killer, Poe and Inspector Emmett Fields (Luke Evans) must join forces in a race against time to work out how to stop the killer before Emily’s time runs out.
So far so thrilling. And it is… to a point.
Personally, and before I go any further, I must preface this review by saying I absolutely love the demented gruesomeness at the heart of Edgar Allan Poe’s work. I also love the Victorian murder mystery genre, be it “The Murders of the Rue Morgue”, ‘Jack the Ripper’, ‘Sherlock Holmes’ or whatever. Therefore, this movie should have been a perfect fit.
Only there’s one snag, and it’s right there on the promotional poster: “John Cusack is Edgar Allan Poe”. Erm, I’ve seen John Cusack movies before. He’s always John Cusack in every single one of them. And John Cusack wearing a goatee does not blind me to this fact. Nor does the fact that he is called “Poe” every two seconds by every other character disguise the fact; presumably just in case we forget. Sure, he puts on a slightly un-Cusack voice every now and again but you just end up thinking: why is John Cusack being weird?
There is even a moment early in the movie where he stands in a tavern and proclaims:
“A drink for any many who can finish this line:
‘Quoth the raven….”
Please don’t finish the line. I get it; he’s supposed to be Edgar Allan Poe. Don’t labour it. He has the goatee, he wears the clothes, he’s speaking funny; I get it.
He then finished the line.
Oh the humanity!
This is not to say that I don’t like Cusack’s work but, hand on heart, the wheels come right off in this performance and he is left horribly, horribly exposed in what is the movie’s pivotal role. Something’s gone clearly wrong when you end up feeling sorry for poor, young Emily (Alice Eve) having to play a lovesick puppy to the much older Cusack. As the movie progresses, it becomes more and more difficult to see why anyone would put up with this creep, let alone marry him. Sure, Poe had a way of rubbing people up the wrong way but Cusack’s Poe is so utterly charmless that it beggars belief that any amount of pretty prose could make up for that.
Worse still, he is made redundant in the very movie where he is the central character. Luke Evans is the one who makes him look like a spare part and is, by stark contrast, excellent in the supporting role of Inspector Emmett Fields. His portrayal of the earnest Fields – a ‘lawman on a mission’- delivers consistently in every scene, to the extent that the film does not seem to know who to root for as the hero. On the evidence of this movie, Evans is clearly ready for leading roles and McTeigue’s direction, consequently, seems to dither in deciding who to focus on in the picture. As a result, Evans and Cusack end up competing for screen time in their scenes together. In terms of screen presence, Evans wins hands down.
Interestingly, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner were reportedly the first picks for the movie in its earlier incarnations, as Poe and Inspector Fields respectively, until Renner pulled out to do “Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol” instead. Knowing this, I can’t help wonder what Phoenix might have done with the role of Poe given how unhinged and interesting his Emperor Commodus was in “Gladiator”(2000). After all, historically speaking, Poe himself was an infinitely interesting character, and yet it is bizarre in the extreme that in this movie he is not the most watchable character onscreen. Ah, what might have been…
While I don’t believe Renner would have added value to the film, given Evan’s surefootedness as Fields, it should be noted that, bar Cusack, the rest of the cast are really very good. Alice Eve is convincing enough as the scared kidnap victim while Brendan Gleeson as her father, Captain Hamilton, is full of such blustery “Don’t mess with me Poe!” prickly authority that it warms the cockles of your heart and makes you wish he had more to work with. Even Kevin McNally is a safe pair of hands as the newspaper editor even if he still hasn’t seen fit to wash off the salty seadog from his days on “Pirates of the Caribbean”.
The story itself is pure hokum: a murderer that goes to the effort of constructing a perfectly weighted pendulum with a blade on the bottom so that Poe’s chief critic is slowly, and perfectly, sliced up like salami at a Tesco deli counter… please! Who could be that conniving or that anally retentive to construct such elaborate murder scenarios? Having said this, I’d love to see the next ’literary murderer’ film: a killer referencing Maeve Binchy novels would make for interesting watching.
Yet, despite the ludicrous storyline and despite Cusack’s miscasting, there was something about this film I really enjoyed. Like “V for Vendetta” before it, McTeigue has crafted a stylish and pacy thriller with enough thrills and spills to entertain this viewer.
Though the murder scenes were admittedly a little silly, I liked the fact that we were getting a guided tour through “Poe World” as if it was some kind of theme park of Poe’s most grisly works brought to life. If I can stretch the “Poe Theme Park” metaphor a little further to breaking point then I might compare this movie to strapping yourself in a ghost train and visiting his most famous works. Undoubtedly, you’ll enjoy the ride but you’ll probably think afterwards that it was all a bit watered down and safe. After all, there is no Vincent Price and this is certainly no Roger Corman tribute. Yet, at the end of the day, if you liked “From Hell” (2001) and “V for Vendetta” (2005) then chances are you’ll probably enjoy this too. It has the same sensibility.
Just no sense.
IN SHORT: Evans stands out in a thrilling romp through “Poe World”. Another tragedy for Poe.
RATING: 3 out of 5 stars
Liked it in spite of myself.
What did you think of the movie? Rate it below here:
Watch the trailer for “The Raven” (2012) here:
Watch the trailer for Roger Corman’s “The Masque of the Red Death” (1964) starring Vincent Price here: