Walking out of the theater I felt unmoved and uninterested in the fictional narrative of what may have happened in the unexplained final days of Edgar Allan Poe’s life as told in director James McTeigue’s The Raven. The mystery didn’t interest me, the love story didn’t convince me and I never found any reason to be wrapped up or concerned with what was going on. All I saw was a man that spoke as if he was reading one of his poems, running around with pained expressions, frequently drunk and making a fool of himself. It’s a hollowed out, self-serious version of the recent take on the Sherlock Holmes story (which aren’t that good either) and, quite frankly, just not very good.
We’re first introduced to Poe (played with strained intensity throughout by John Cusack) as he sits on a park bench, dying. The final moments of Poe’s life that led him to this predicament are not known so screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare let their imaginations run wild with the final week of the famed writer’s life. Well, wild enough to tell a story lacking in originality or intrigue.
Once we’ve been introduced to Poe’s slovenly ways, we also learn he has a crush on the lovely Emily (Alice Eve), daughter of Colonel Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson), a man that despises Poe for whatever reason, seemingly for his writing, something of which gets Emily all hot and bothered. While the colonel would prefer to point a gun at Poe, Emily would prefer to marry him and their plan to announce their engagement at an upcoming masquerade ball held at her father’s house soon becomes a part of the mystery that’s about to play out.
Poe, poor and drunk, hasn’t had any pages published in some time. He’s distraught and enraged at the idea of a competing writer continually being published over him, but we soon see his competition splayed out on a table, a massive swinging blade soon ripping into his gut. The pages of Poe’s “Pit and the Pendulum” have come to life as a serial killer is on the loose, imitating the grisly murders as written by Poe while at the same time challenging him. This is the second such incident and more are to come.
Poe eventually becomes a pawn in this madman’s game, as Emily is kidnapped and dead bodies are piling up around him. Teamed with Detective Fields (played by Luke Evans with a constant look of concern and bumbling confusion), Poe is forced to write himself out of his troubles in the most literal of ways.
What’s amazing to me is how all of that sounds far more intriguing and/or interesting than it actually plays on the big screen, which is saying something because it doesn’t really sound all that intriguing. Poe’s dark tales work within the confined spaces of his pages and could easily be worked into a moody drama with the right people in charge, but here it feels like amateurs working off Cliff’s Notes versions of Poe’s stories, attempting to bring to life the heinous, forgetting about the delicate touches that make stories all the more thrilling.
Knowing the film will end in Poe’s death and learning almost immediately he’s been carrying on with his love for Emily in secret, we are immediately detached from the story and its characters. There’s no time to get a feel for the relationship because, after all, this is a murder mystery and as Biggie would say, somebody’s got to die.
The love story quickly becomes a side story, along with Poe’s drunkenness, his lack of funds, his quarrel with Emily’s father, his quarrel with the now-dead critic and so forth. If I were to ask the screenwriters or McTeigue which aspect of the story was more important — the connection to the characters, the love story or the lackluster mystery — I’m sure they’d say, “All are important.” At which point I could only wonder why then would they present such uninteresting portrayals of each to the point they’re merely facts of the narrative rather than heartfelt realities?
And only now do we come to the dialogue, written as if people speak in wooden prose, playing copycat to their favorite writers. When it wasn’t wooden or merely presented for exposition, Poe is running around reciting lines as if it would give us any additional reason to think of him as a famed writer. Beyond which, he leads a trivia session pertaining to his own work inside a local pub, ending with him booted out the door, presenting as unflattering a picture of the man you could come by. Later he recites Joseph Glanville’s, “The ways of God in Nature, as in Providence, are not as our ways,” a quote Poe used in “A Descent Into the Maelstrom”, but here it sounds so forced and stupid. Tack on his pet raccoon Carl and I don’t know if I’m looking at a character I should laugh at, loathe or ignore. I chose all of the above.
When it comes to director James McTeigue, I have now realized V for Vendetta was the beginning and end of all he had to offer cinema. I personally love that film, but after seeing Ninja Assassin and The Raven it’s time to never look forward to a film of his again. While leaping from rooftops, the killer in The Raven wears a black cape and black hat, and it’s this lack of imagination and recycling of his own work that makes McTeigue’s most recent films that much more uninteresting.
The Raven counts too heavily on the gruesome presentation of the film’s murders to carry the weight of the film’s menace, forgetting that we need to actually care about the characters in distress if we’re to feel anything or care about the mystery at the film’s core. McTeigue is clearly all flash with little substance and if you need any more evidence of this just sit through this film and then tell me just what the hell the closing credits are supposed to represent.