Directed by: James McTeigue, Runtime: 110 minutes
The details of Edgar Allan Poe's death are vague and bizarre: muttering names of unknown people, wearing clothes that weren't his, and exhibiting grave distress without the ability to coherently explain why, a lot's left to interpretation about what led up to the brooding poet's demise on the streets of Baltimore. So, naturally, in an era where Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy can take on a horde of zombies and Abraham Lincoln's early years were spent chopping down vampires, filling the void of those last few days with a murder-mystery appears almost conservative by comparison. Thus enters The Raven, a work of gothic, grim suspense from V for Vendetta director James McTeigue about a reader of Poe's who takes the writer's work too close to heart. A stony demeanor and macabre focus give it the necessary mood, heavy and straight-faced as a capricious love letter to the dark writer should be, but McTeigue's unadventurous direction limits it to being little more than an endurable, throwaway period thriller.
The Raven begins by revealing those base details of Poe's death, offering a precursor of what's to come -- and a glimpse at the space in which Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare's script takes place -- before jumping ahead to a few days prior. Penniless and in desperate need of a drink, the writer (John Cusack) roams the streets and taverns of Maryland in a stupor of creative stagnancy and deep love for one Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), daughter to a domineering captain (Brendan Gleeson) who doesn't care for Poe (pistols become involved). Elsewhere, a murder is committed; a grisly attack on a woman and her daughter resembles the brutality in one of Poe's short stories, deciphered by a detective, Emmett Fields (Luke Evans), who has read his work. He enlists Poe to help with the murder investigation after making the connection, but when another victim falls prey to a device of Poe's grisly tales, involving a pendulum and a certain critic of Poe's work, the situation grows graver and more close-knitted to those surrounding the writer.
Director McTeigue incorporates location shots from across Europe to create the dark, misty corners of this brooding version of Baltimore, which give The Raven a rock-strewn appearance that elevates the ominous atmosphere. Poe's walks through the streets and gallant rants in taverns are drowned in low, moody light that envisions the 19th-Century essence with textbook gothic accoutrements; candles, weathered books, rich wood grains and hanging dust shape it into a lived-in labyrinth that steeps Danny Ruhlmann's cinematography in indelible shadows. While rich, the environment also becomes somewhat foreseeable as well -- such as a masquerade ball that hides identities in elaborate costumes drenched in candlelight, and long winding dirt roads are obscured by barred trees and thick fog. A fusion of McTeigue's bleaker visual motifs in V for Vendetta mix with a perspective similar to The Hughes Brothers' From Hell, equal parts intriguingly moody and predictable in how the images takes shape.
The mystery at the heart of The Raven isn't terribly distinctive, either. Within the 19th-Century atmosphere not unlike a certain tale of Jack the Ripper, this killer's behavior takes on similarities to a cocktail of David Fincher's Se7en and, well, David Fincher's Zodiac, mixing theme-driven displays of ghastly murder that tie into Edgar Allan Poe's stature as a lauded writer of horror and violence. A hint of curiosity exists in anticipating which of Poe's stories will be next, from The Masque of the Red Death to The Cask of Amontillado, and we're treated to a few lump-in-the-throat reveals around their realizations: a pendulum blade to a torso, a bloodied actress in lavish dressings, and the claustrophobia of being buried alive. Ultimately, though, McTeigue's film can't avoid appearing as if it's merely riding the rails of familiar stories and visual designs, tying into other tales of psychotic literature-inspired killers with twisted motivations; it's just got that new-movie sheen because of the gothic writer's presence.
The Raven's distinguishing qualities rely on John Cusack's incarnation of Edgar Allan Poe. He's a unique choice that frequently holds one's attention; he intuitively delivers Poe's perpetually partly-drunken, narcissistic intellect, capturing the look and feel of a lavish interpretation of the writer's grim presence. Cusack fits the demands for the buzzing energy in the air, with a bit of his pathos from 1408 erupting in Poe's on-edge mannerisms as the thrills hit an incline, and his leaner frame (he dropped around 20 pounds for the role) bounces from one gothic set piece to another with a continual energy that suits the film's perfunctory suspense-driven purposes. The one-dimensional performances surrounding him reek of sating token purposes, though: Alice Eve's soft innocence is endearing but expected as Poe's doe-eyed love; Luke Evans accentuates the steely, strong-jawed presence of Detective Fields; and Brendan Gleeson's conventional father figure as Captain Hamilton shifts from sternness to concern at expected moments.
There's nothing inherently wrong with The Raven. There really isn't. McTeigue keeps the suspense, and its players, moving through the shadowy setting at a brisk-enough pace throughout its 100-minute gallop through an embellished Maryland setting, sustaining a torrent of plot twists that factor into Poe's writings -- and the mental state of his audience. Building to a grand curtain-pull that reveals the identity of the killer, the energy is palpable and stylish enough to embrace, but there's little beyond the superficial gothic thrills, little outside of its innumerable borrowed tableaus and an entertaining dramatic turn from a dedicated Cusack. It culminates into an exhibition of psychosis that fizzles out once we're glancing back on Edgar Allan Poe's body sitting still on that snowy bench; perhaps the events in The Raven were nothing more than a wild fever dream in the mind of a dying abstract author, or perhaps they're an expression of his last creative process. Either way, it'll probably all fade from your mind about as quickly as it did in his.
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