Thursday, May 03, 2012

Culture Shock 05.03.12: Don't open your door to this 'Raven'

This is an idea that should work. Take a real-life writer known for his explorations of murder and the macabre, and embroil him in a murder mystery of his own.

But "The Raven" seems as lost as any maiden whom the angels named Lenore.

John Cusack stars as a man who answers to the name Edgar Allan Poe. While this Poe has the same name as the famous poet and claims to have written that Poe's works, he doesn't really seem a lot like the historical Poe he's meant to be — even allowing that this is an alternate history in which Poe pursues a serial killer.

Perhaps it's because this Poe is also in love, seemingly having put the memory of his dead wife Virginia — inspiration for many of his works — behind him.

Well, it wouldn't be a Hollywood movie without a love story shoehorned into it, would it?

Poe did court other women after his wife's death, but they're omitted here. In this case, the object of Poe's affection is Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), whose father (Brendan Gleeson), quite naturally has no desire for his daughter to marry a disreputable, drunken and impoverished poet like Poe.

As plot points go, this seems far too familiar.

But why dwell on that when we have a murderer on the loose? And the particulars of his murders seem familiar, too. Intentionally so, leading Detective Fields (Luke Evans) of the Baltimore police to suspect they are all based on Poe's stories.

So, how do you catch a killer whose methods mimic the stories of the city's most notorious writer? You enlist that writer's help, of course.

So, Fields and Poe are on the case, collecting clues even as the morgue collects corpses.

Director James McTeigue ("V for Vendetta") is still trying to shake all of the bad habits he picked up while working for the Wachowskis — including the unwelcome, if brief return of "bullet time" — while the screenplay never delivers the twists and turns needed for a good mystery.

The one unsatisfying twist we do get tries to put a new spin on the historical Poe's final days, which remain the subject of speculation.

So, it falls to the movie's star to carry us through, but Cusack, while likable, has little to work with. His Poe occasionally hints at the moodiness of the genuine article, but just when that seems to be going somewhere, he has to be happy again because he's in love. His mood swings are dictated by what the plot needs at the time. The only time Cusack really seems to be Poe is when he is launching an attack on one of his literary rivals — something the real Poe excelled at.

It's almost a given that movies that take shots at critics are made by people who don't expect to get favorable reviews. Now, I don't take it personally, but "The Raven" isn't especially kind to critics. One of them even ends up beneath Poe's infamous pendulum, and fittingly he's named Griswold, after a real-life Poe rival who did his best to tarnish Poe's reputation after his death.

It's one of the few, fleeting clever bits that only Poe enthusiasts will recognize and appreciate, although I find myself wishing Griswold had been the killer — a Salieri to Poe's Mozart — because there are no feuds quite like literary feuds.

Another clever moment hints at the posthumous rehabilitation of Poe's literary reputation among French critics before American critics finally started to take him seriously.

And what would Poe, no slouch as a critic himself, have made of what's been made of him in "The Raven"?

The real Edgar Allan Poe's life was filled with enough tragedy, drama, heartbreak and rivalries to make a pretty compelling movie. I wish someone had made that movie instead of this one.


  1. Despite a handful of narrative missteps and a few errant accents, it's actually a pretty neat "what if?" story. Although I can definitely see it's not for everyone to sit and enjoy. Cusack was also pretty good and definitely lifted up this material. Nice review Franklin.

  2. It might have worked for me if they'd just given the obligatory romantic subplot to a character other than Poe -- like Det. Fields. But then they would have had to come up with some other excuse for that ending.