Saturday, April 28, 2012

Day 125: The Raven

"If I had known that my work would have such a morbid effect on people, I would have devoted more time to creating eroticism."

I make a solemn pledge to you, faithful reader, not to use any bad Edgar Allen Poe puns in my review. The film opens with a specious scrawl that reads something to the effect of: "Edgar Allen Poe was found near death on a park bench on October 7, 1849. The last days of his life and circumstances of his death remain a mystery." It's a footnote of history that the film hangs its entire premise on, and it's just the kind of thing designed to inspire literary nerds to fall all over themselves as they clamor to the box office.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that in a college playwriting course, I too based a short play on a footnote of history involving Poe's Annabel Lee and several ladies claiming to be its inspiration, so I felt like a kindred spirit to this film's screenwriters Hannah Shakespeare & Ben Livingston. I should also note that this film's marketing department should be drawn and quartered in a manner befitting the film's subject. The film is marketed like some sort of steampunk action nonsense, and that's so far from what the film is, I was embarrassed for everyone involved when I re-watched the trailer.
The film is part of the revisionist fad of the last few years, taking a famous person, in this case Poe (John Cusack), and putting them in a story that features some meta-twist on their lives. In this case, someone is re-creating the crimes of Poe's greatest literary works in real life, in some sort of attempt, at best, to coerce Poe into writing again, or at worst, implicating himself in a crime spree of his own design.

The first thirty minutes of the film are its most effective. Director James McTeigue (V For Vendetta, Ninja Assassin) establishes a world where a great artist such as Poe is shunned for his substantial vices, and everyone from the newspaper publisher Maddux (Kevin McNally) to the wealthiest man in town Capt. Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson) have dark secrets and potential motives that may imply them in the crimes unfolding on screen.
As for those crimes, someone is recreating famous deaths from Poe's canon (Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Pit & The Pendulum). When a desperate young detective named Fields (Luke Evans) finds himself at his wit's end with the murders, he enlists the help of the man who may have inspired the killer. Poe has issues of his own however, namely that the woman he loves, Emily (Alice Eve), is the daughter of the aforementioned Capt. Hamilton, who would sooner see Poe dead than with his daughter.

Clues left at the crime scenes lead Fields and Poe to believe that the killer's next crime will mimic the events of The Masque of Red Death, which takes place at a masquerade ball, which Capt. Hamilton is coincidentally planning for his daughter. At the ball, Emily is kidnapped, placing Fields and Poe on a deadline to find the killer and rescue Poe's beloved.
Let me start my critique of the film off by saying that, by and large, the film is better than it has any right to be. The trailers had me hornswoggled into thinking this was going to be an action extravaganza dressed up in ascots and pretension, with no literary sensibility whatsoever. It's actually quite the opposite. With the exception of a few gruesome murders, the film is fairly light on action and more involved with the mystery of who the murderer is, and will our heroes discover that fact in time to save Emily.
This last statement is also my biggest issue with the film. Ever since reading Brad Meltzer's stellar DC Comics limited series "Identity Crisis," I find myself reciting Batman's mantra every time I'm confronted with a mystery... "Who Benefits?"  If you ask yourself this around the forty-five minute mark, you might not necessarily discover the killer's identity, but you'll have narrowed the suspects down to two, and it kind of ruins the fun that the film's creators had clearly hoped to create. The dearth of supporting characters also makes it relatively easy to whittle down suspects.

As far as the performances go, they're good across the board. No true standouts, save perhaps Brendan Gleeson, who's always great. Cusack isn't bad, but I question his casting in the first place. He's an actor who's at his best when his laconic, average guy charm slowly wins you over. Here, he just seems, and pardon the pun, "too old for this shit." He's not phoning in it, per se, but he's not having a whole lot of fun either, and it just makes me sort of question his participation in the entire endeavor.
Evans would likely be, for me, the biggest surprise. He's not an actor that I've seen in anything but nonsense like Clash of the Titans & Immortals, so he won me over pretty quickly, and while the film gives them little to do, he and Cusack make a pretty winning combination. Eve is perfectly suitable as well, always easy on the eyes, and not given much to do beyond the damsel in distress routine, but to play that kind of character without making the character shrill or one-dimensional is actually challenging, and she rises above it laudably.
Overall, I wouldn't run right out and see The Raven unless you're a die-hard Poe fan or a John Cusack completest (I used to live with one). It is a solid movie though, perfect for a fall night when you want to watch something other than the same old horror films. It's a surprisingly literate film, one that made me smile on more than a few occasions at how clever it could be, but one that also made me roll my eyes several times at how obvious it was being. It's a bit of a conundrum, much like Poe the man and Cusack the actor.

Go Rating: 3/5

[All photos via Box Office Mojo]

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