APRIL 27, 2012
The "a madman is using an author's writing as the inspiration for their killing spree" idea has been done several times, but I think The Raven is the first to actually put the author in the middle of the story as a character. So even though I've already watched a Poe-inspired serial killer film before (Dead End Road), I was intrigued by the idea of Poe himself helping to solve the crimes, with the added intrigue of offering up a solution for his death as it took place during the last few days of his life.
Well hopefully in 20 years when it comes time to remake the movie, they do it right. The intriguing concept is done no justice by James McTeigue and his crew, as they have delivered one of the most lifeless and least compelling serial killer thrillers I can recall. Many of the murders are off-screen and none are of victims we know, which means the film amounts to little more than 105 minutes of Poe (John Cusack) and a cop (Luke Evans) poring over corpses, or Poe writing the stories the killer is demanding in order to keep providing them clues as to the whereabouts of Poe's fiance Emily. Not that I need copious bloodshed in order to enjoy a film, but with a plot this weak and largely uneventful, anything to break up the monotony could only be a blessing. Sadly, such distractions never occur - the entire movie is filler.
It's also miscast. Cusack has three modes in the film, none of which seem befitting of the tortured soul we know Poe to be. One is basically Robert Downey Jr. from Sherlock Holmes; a pompous but charming smartass who is constantly inspiring those around him to want to punch him. This version we don't see much, which is fine because it's ill-fitting and adds nothing to the story (though I was a bit surprised since the trailer is cut to make it look like a complete ripoff of that series). Then there's the Nicolas Cage version, who shouts lines for no reason (an out of nowhere shouting of "EMILY!!!!" is destined to be an oft-played Youtube clip) and basically just engages in some of that mega-acting that we've come to expect from Cage. And then there's just plain John Cusack, putting no effort at all into portraying one of the genre's most beloved icons. Maybe I'm spoiled after having seen Jeffrey Combs in "Nevermore", but I think anyone would agree that this is most certainly NOT one of Cusack's best efforts as an actor.
But even if he was delivering an award-worthy performance, it wouldn't help the fact that the script gives him almost nothing to do. He is called in because apparently no one in Baltimore has read his stories, and thus he needs to be brought along to every murder scene so he can be like "That's from Cask of Amontillado!" or whatever. Later he puts his detective skills to use, but since we have a detective with as much screen time as Cusack, it's clunky - the detective character should have been kept to a minimum, because if Poe can figure these things out, what purpose does the detective serve? Shouldn't he be more of an adversary, suspecting Poe of the murders as Poe goes rogue in order to clear his name?
Anyway, after a couple of murders they "make it personal" by kidnapping Emily, but it has almost no effect on the way he operates. Perhaps if he had no interest in helping the cops until that point it would add some semblance of intensity to the proceedings, but it's barely a factor - he just yells a little more often. It doesn't help that Emily is a total nothing of a character; we don't see them together much since he is hated by her dad (Brendan Gleeson, whose only character trait is completely reversed at random at the end of the second act), and she's played by Alice Eve, who may be the least interesting actress on the planet. Occasionally they cut to her trapped in her coffin trying to get out, but these scenes are suspense-free and dragged out for an eternity - even when she seems to be close to escape I never felt compelled by any of it.
Speaking of her kidnapping, it has to be one of the most poorly edited sequences I've ever seen in a studio-released film. Poe and Emily are dancing when suddenly a guy on a horse rides into the ballroom, causing a panic. We see Poe and Emily seek cover together as the rider is shot. As he is surrounded by the police, we discover that he's a decoy for the real killer, which makes everyone look around quickly, scanning the crowd for anyone that didn't belong. And then... boom! We're in the next scene, Emily has been taken and the killer has gotten away (the decoy character is never seen or mentioned again). Huh? How did he manage to get Emily away from Poe? How did no one see this? I honestly thought the movie had skipped a chapter or something, but poor editing is quite common in the film - a later action scene in the rafters of a theater is equally puzzling, and many scenes seemingly start (or end) in the middle. There's no flow or semblance of time passing, which is a big problem for a movie that has a deadline built into it (Emily running out of air). Even the climax, where the hero takes the villain down, occurs confusingly and off-screen despite building up to it with a random trip to Paris - the movie literally goes out of its way to frustrate its audience.
And then there's the mystery itself, which is almost laughably weak. Figuring out who the killer is in a Halloween sequel is more exciting than the reveal of the murderer, who is a nothing character of no significance and delivers a motive that makes no sense at all (something Poe actually says to his face; a rare moment in the film where I was on board with the script). To give them credit though - at least they didn't hire a recognizable actor to play the role, because then it would be even more obvious - I had my eye on another useless character for a while until they pointlessly have him in a scene where the killer is clearly elsewhere. On that note, three early scenes eliminate just about every other potential suspect in the movie, which is another example of how botched this script is and how little McTeigue did as a director to make up for it.
Hell even the end credits suck. Built around a crazy robotic raven of some sort, the letters are all split apart and thus hard to read. Maybe they just wanted to try to keep anyone from knowing who to blame. I did make out that one of the screenwriters is named Shakespeare, however, which is a delightful slice of irony. And even though it was late (after 2 am) I kept watching the credits, hoping that maybe there would be a Wild Things-esque collection of scenes during the credits that explain some of the movie's confusing story points, but alas. The Raven ends just as it began; awkward and lifeless. Easily the biggest disappointment of the year.
What say you?