dir. James McTeigue
Release Date: Apr 27, 12
Did Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films make you yearn for a world in which more old literary heroes were repurposed as sassy antiheroes? If you’ve ever experienced this very specific and somewhat arbitrary sensation, look no further than The Raven, which steps beyond the page and turns Edgar Allen Poe (John Cusack) himself into a drunk who struggles to get his work published and owns a pet raccoon. When a copycat murderer begins to use Poe’s stories as the basis for a series of grisly murders around nineteenth-century Baltimore, Poe’s last days are reconstructed as a race against time to rescue his lover (Alice Eve), who’s been abducted in order to engage Poe in a battle of wits. Poe also butts heads and eventually teams up with Fields (Luke Evans), a detective who understands that Poe is in the best possible position to hunt the killer down.
James McTeigue, best known for his adaptation of Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta and less so for Ninja Assassin, gives the film a polished look that sometimes steals from Sherlock Holmes in its smoky, grimy Victorian style. The violence is far beyond over-the-top; as in Ninja Assassin, McTeigue employs CGI blood by the gallon in order to give some of the more brutal murders an extra pop, such as one in which the killer brings The Pit and the Pendulum to grisly life. Despite the fact that what McTeigue is doing is essentially a historically manipulative take on Seven, for much of its runtime the film moves along at a good clip and stays reasonably involving as audiences get to guess which of the film’s numerous red herrings will end up being the payoff.
Cusack, for his part, is the most engaged he’s been in a while. Many have observed that he’s doing his best Nicolas Cage impression, which is absolutely true. Cusack has the odd vocal ticks and provocateur’s spirit of Cage fused with Robert Downey Jr., while also adding his own mopey brand of hyper-articulation for flavor. Given the sad-sack nature of some of Cusack’s best work, he’s an excellent fit for this version of Poe, who’s mostly consumed by depression and has fallen into a haze of opiates and drink. He brings a strange energy to the film that sustains it through an escalating series of setpieces that start to feel repetitious after a while.
The film follows a general rhythm in which Poe and Fields find a clue, Poe decodes it, they run to their discovered destination only to find another corpse, rinse and repeat. At points this gets trying, especially in the film’s third act, which has several near misses before wrapping things up, and tacks on a rather unnecessary final scene that teases a sequel-open finale before undoing it just moments later. There’s also the matter of the eventual end of the mystery, which doesn’t feel built up enough for the payoff to make any satisfying sense. The romantic subplot, too, feels tacked on just to give Poe the motivation to race between bloody crime scenes. The Raven is an effective enough whodunit, but at the end it’s difficult to leave with a sense of satisfaction, especially given the title card at the very opening, which makes everything else build only to the inevitable.