Hollywood has a history of repeating success and/or capturing lightning in a bottle (or, as an oft-used Hollywood poe vial of summoning goes “nobody wants to be first, but everyone wants to be second”). For example, when Star Wars became a success, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was shunted from Paramount Pictures’ television to movie division, with inferior offerings such as Battle Beyond the Stars rushed into production. Raiders of the Lost Ark launched the less successful likes of Doc Savage and Allan Quartermain and the City of Gold. John Millius’ Conan the Barbarian inspired the lackluster Lou Ferrigno Hercules films, and so forth. With the advent of the mammoth success that has been Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes franchise, another Victorian era actioner was bound to happen. In this case, it is The Raven directed by James McTeigue (V for Vendetta, Ninja Assassin). Unlike Holmes, it is not a Victorian fictional character at the forefront, but an actual historical figure in the form of Edgar Allen Poe (John Cusack, Say Anything, Hot Tub Time Machine) in the final, destitute (and historically nebulous) years of his life.
The premise of the film is simple: a serial killer who stalks the streets of Baltimore utilizes Poe’s stories as a basis for each murder, places Poe’s resourceful lady love Emily (the lovely Alice Eve, the forthcoming Men In Black III and the currently filming Star Trek sequel) in mortal danger and challenging Poe to solve his clues to rescue her. Upon first glance, The Raven seems like a blatant attempt to cash in on Holmes’ coattails. However, this film could not be further than it’s “inspiration”. Where the Holmes films were fast moving, action oriented fare punctuated with moments of humor, The Raven is a dark, atmospheric methodical horror procedural which takes itself perhaps a bit too seriously. The settings, even in the daytime, are as dark and forboding as Poe’s attire, the only hint of light epitomized in Emily’s golden tresses and bright mode of dress. This is a humorless world which is as stark as any story the real Poe ever wrote; the shadows cast in the scenery are all pervasive, touching upon the characters themselves, such as Detective Fields (Luke Evans, The Three Musketeers), the constabulary who engages Poe in the investigation, and Captain Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson, the Harry Potter series), who loathes Poe for trying to romance his daughter. All of the actors bring in top notch performances, but especially Cusack as the title character. Gone are the “Cusackisms” that infuse his previous characters. This is one of those rare efforts where an actor buries himself so completely in the part you forget the person playing the role. He and McTeigue deftly avoid the clichéof turningPoe into an action hero. He’s not. In truth, he is the furthest thing from. He is a man hounded by personal demons and past glories, and it leads to a satisfactory character arc from beginning to end.
This is also a risky film, because it goes against American movie goingconventions and expectations. To say more would enter into spoiler territory, but sufficeit to say that it contains elements that would turn off most viewers. What little gore in evidence is explicit and the battle between good and evil is not so cut and dry even at its conclusion. However, the film is not without its flaws, most especially in the reveal of the murderer. Say what one will about Ritchie’s Holmes series, clues are laid out in full view of the public throughout the films. Here, The Raven cheats. Again, more cannot be said without spoiling the film, however, once seen this complaint will be understood. It is understandable to want to surprise the viewer with the killer’s identity; it is another thing to do so at the expense of the audience’s intelligence and rob them of the opportunity to figure it out properly. The final scene seems almost a tacked on afterthought to appease the general public; one that is oddly dissatisfying.
Despite this, The Raven is a good film, on par with From Hell starring Johnny Depp. The film’s tone matches the works of the character it is based, so bear that in mind when watching it. Do not expect sunshine and rainbows. You can expect good performances and evocative atmosphere. It is worth a viewing.