I thought it was about time for me to chime in and offer something of a contrary point of view in response to all of the critical plucking that The Raven has been getting. (Wow, that sentence almost sounds like free verse, doesn’t it? Poe himself would’ve been. . . amused. And probably drunk.) As a longtime fan of one of the greatest storytellers of all time as well as a tireless defender of director James McTeigue (albeit one who’s also quick to point out and admit to his weaknesses), I couldn’t help but. . . kind of like The Raven, every now and then.
Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack, turning the perpetually unhealthy and hard-drinking wordsmith into a handsome action star) skulks around 1849 Baltimore, engaging in drunken bar fights and courting Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve, looking as unrealistically luminous as Heather Graham did in this film’s spiritual companion piece, From Hell), the healthy daughter of a sickly Army officer (Brendan Gleeson) who’s none too keen of his little girl associating with such artsy riffraff. Poe soon starts to get a taste of his own fiction when a serial killer begins committing crimes inspired by several of the writer’s stories, including “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” “The Tomb of Ligeia” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” After being assured by Poe’s editor that the only thing Poe ever killed was “a bottle of gin,” the investigating detective (Luke Evans) enlists the writer’s help, thrusting him into a demented theatrical spectacle that could be considered a mid-19th century equivalent of This Is Your Life.
The whole thing is ridiculous and at times almost laughably melodramatic (“theatrical” doesn’t even begin to describe some of the heated histrionics and swooshing capes on display here), but The Raven nonetheless makes for a fitfully entertaining piece of meta-fiction. Not surprisingly, the film is especially enjoyable for Poe fans, presenting its elaborately staged murder scenes (many of which are reminiscent of the “punishments” of Se7en and the “lessons” of Saw) in a teasing and playful manner, almost as if the killer — and the filmmakers — are asking you, “Guess which Poe story this nasty bit of work is from?” Sure, the entire narrative rests on the thin foundation of a gimmick, but it’s a good gimmick, one that goes a long way in forgiving — or at least giving a hall pass to — some of the film’s shortcomings with things like, oh, logic and dramatic credibility.
Cusack’s work is commendable here. An underrated genre actor (he was terrific in Stephen King’s Man vs. CGI chamber piece, 1408), the all-grown-up Better Off Dead star brings his natural likability and soulful Droopy the Dog features in creating a Poe as charming as he is haunted. Whether he’s drunkenly wallowing in self-loathing or racing through the sewers in pursuit of his Number One Fan, Cusack’s Poe makes for an unlikely but completely convincing pulp hero. Meanwhile, Alice Eve is hot and does well with the damsel-in-distress thing, Brendan Gleeson turns cranky and choleric into high thespian art and Downton Abbey‘s Brendan Coyle threatens to steal the show as Reagan, the long-suffering and wise bartender. Also particularly excellent is Luke Evans, whose underplayed performance as the hardworking and wily Detective Fields keeps things classy even when the film occasionally indulges in over-the-top grand guignol gore (if you remember from Ninja Assassin, director James McTeigue isn’t one to shy away from blood).
Ah, James McTeigue. The Wachowskis’ second unit director on the Matrix films and Speed Racer is certainly a capable director in his own right, having previously delivered the flawed but reasonably entertaining Assassin and V For Vendetta. However, he has an inexplicable knack for making genre movies with decent-sized budgets look Syfy Channel cheap. He goes for shadowy, gritty atmosphere in The Raven — indeed, attempting to turn it into a 19-century variation on Se7en — but the whole thing sometimes (but, to be fair, not always) looks like it was shot on video with duct-taped sets, flat lighting and dull colors (except for red, of course). Perhaps “theatrical” is the appropriate term for describing The Raven‘s aesthetic; it often looks more like a community theatre adaptation of one of Poe’s stories (though I mean that in the most endearing way possible) than a movie with an albeit modest but still respectable budget of $26 million.
Ultimately, though, McTeigue and his merry macabre players might have the last laugh on those who would point out the faults in their creation. One of the film’s most gruesome death scenes is an ode to “The Pit and the Pendulum,” in which the literary victim exclaims, “But I’m only a critic!” It’s a much more good-natured ribbing than M. Night Shyamalan’s violent dispatching of Bob Balaban’s film critic character in Lady in the Water, and one that suggests that perhaps, in time, we’ll all learn to appreciate The Raven for the work of genius it is, just as it sometimes took a while to realize just how damn good Poe’s writings really were.