Directed by: James McTeigue
Premise: A fictional story in which 19th century writer Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) is enlisted by the police to solve murders inspired by his poems and short stories.
What Works: The Raven is a film that will be of interest to fans of writer Edgar Allan Poe. The design of the production captures the tone of Poe’s Victorian-era horror stories and those who are familiar with his literary works will be amused by the references to his work. John Cusack plays Poe and overall the actor does a good job. Cusack’s Edgar Allan Poe is a mix of wit and melancholy that makes him interesting to watch. The writing of Poe’s dialogue is especially good, incorporating the rhythm and diction of his poetry.
What Doesn’t: The Raven was directed by James McTeigue, who is best known for directing V for Vendetta, and the two films have a lot parallels in their strengths but especially in their weaknesses, with The Raven’s weaknesses overwhelming the picture. Although the production design of The Raven is impressive, the action within those settings is not always easy to follow and some critical scenes are incompetently staged and edited, especially the abduction scene at the masked ball. This scene comes about halfway into the story and it ought to be a key turning point in the plot, raising the stakes and initiating as a narrative ticking clock. Instead, The Raven grinds to a halt and never regains its momentum. The mystery is uninvolving, the story is tepidly paced, and there is no sense of rising action or dramatic urgency. This is partly because the film fails as a detective story and partly because the killer has no compelling motive and does not come into any direct conflict with the heroes. The authority figures are ineffective and spend much of their time standing around the police station looking at one another instead of doing something active to solve the crime. The killer’s actions are mostly inconsequential there is no sense of purpose to his designs. Throughout the second half of The Raven the Poe character is driven out of his writer’s block by the demands of the killer but there is no push and pull between the protagonist and antagonist and the climax is very stupid, literally coming from nowhere and resolving nothing. The lack of drama is the result of a fundamental problem with The Raven, in that the filmmakers never develop their core concept from a novel idea into a proper story, nor do they entertain the implications of the central idea. The premise of the mystery, that a killer is dispatching his victims with methods borrowed from the works of Edgar Allan Poe, is a compelling idea that courts all kinds of interesting themes such as the relationship of reality and art and whether artists bear any responsibility for the way their work impacts audience members. None of those ideas are fleshed out here and it creates another fault for the picture. Just as V for Vendetta courted ideas about revolution and rebellion but never went beyond the surface, The Raven‘s use of the Edgar Allan Poe’s literature is similarly shallow. The production design captures the gothic qualities of Poe’s work but it lacks the psychological horror and trauma underlying it. Poe’s work was and continues to be disturbing not merely because of his macabre invention but because the stories and characters are haunted by madness and melancholy. The Raven does not possess those qualities and the filmmaker’s understanding of Poe is superficial at best.
Bottom Line: The Raven will be interesting for Edgar Allan Poe enthusiasts but it will probably be enjoyed as a curiosity and little else. It isn’t a very good mystery and its use of Poe as a fictional character is just a contrivance.
Episode: #388 (May 13, 2012)