The Raven (2012)

The Raven

Edgar Allen Poe or John Wilkes Booth? You decide.

(2012) Thriller (Relativity) John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve, Brendan Gleeson, Kevin McNally, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Jimmy Yuill, Michael Shannon, Sam Hazeldine, Pam Ferris, Brendan Coyle, Adrian Rawlins, Aidan Feore, Dave Legeno, John Warnaby. Directed by James McTeigue

 

It is no secret that Edgar Allen Poe was one of the greatest writers in the history of American literature. He was the Stephen King of his day, his interests tending towards the macabre but while King is a superior storyteller, Poe was the better writer (assessments I think both King – and Poe – would have agreed upon).

The death of Edgar Allen Poe is shrouded in mystery. He was discovered raving in the streets of Baltimore (on a park bench according to this film but history doesn’t give us that kind of detail) and died in a Baltimore hospital four days later. To this day the cause of death is unknown. This movie gives us one theory.

As the film opens Poe (Cusack), a raging alcoholic, is flat broke trying to get drink on credit in a bar. Few know who he is; fewer still his accomplishments. His critical essay on Wordsworth’s most recent book has been killed by Henry (McNally), the editor of the Baltimore Patriot. Poe is desperate for the funds; Henry wants something along the lines of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Poe is well-aware that his best days as a writer are behind him and despite the encouragement of a sympathetic typesetter (Hazeldine), he is unsure he has another great story in him.

In the meantime, Det. Fields (Evans) of the Baltimore Police Department, has stumbled onto a grisly murder. In a locked room, a mother has been found with her throat slit and her daughter stuffed up the chimney having been strangled. There’s no way in or out and the officers entering the room distinctly heard the door lock before they broke in. How did the killer get away? The detective discovers an ingenious latching mechanism on  the window which had appeared to have been nailed shut. Fields recognizes the set-up of the murder, but from where?

After some research, he discovers that it is similar to a story written by one Edgar Allen Poe, from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” He calls Poe in for consultation, and when Poe’s literary nemesis, Rufus Griswold (Warnaby), turns up cut in two – by a blade hanging from a pendulum – he realizes that there is a killer on the loose bent on recreating murder scenes from Poe’s work.

Poe would rather concentrate on wooing Emily Hamilton (Eve), with whom he is deeply in love (and who loves him right back) but her father, the hot-headed Captain Hamilton (Gleeson) would much rather use Poe for target practice with his revolver. Nonetheless, Poe is ready to announce his engagement to his beloved when she is kidnapped by the dastardly fiend who makes his game with Poe far more personal. Poe will have to use clues discovered on the bodies of the victims to find his fiancee before time runs out – and the killer might be closer to him than he realizes.

Keep in mind when watching this that it is meant as pure entertainment. If you’re one of those looking for historical accuracy, you’re in the wrong theater. McTeigue, best-known for V for Vendetta, has concocted a nice little yarn that puts Poe in the position of being Sherlock Holmes but quite frankly, Poe is overshadowed in the detective department by Fields who is more Holmes-like.

It is also no secret that John Cusack is one of my favorite actors and he isn’t disappointing, although he seems a bit more prone to chewing scenery here than he is normally. He bellows like a rampaging bull from time to time and tends to overplay. Still, few actors grasp the nuances of their characters better than Cusack and his regret, frustration and general pessimism bring Poe to life. Cusack’s Poe is a weary man, resentful not that he finds himself unable to write but that he is largely responsible for the mess that he’s in with his drinking and debauchery. The death of his first wife weighs on him heavily and there is a sense that Emily might just be his only way to salvation.

There are some wonderful scenes here, like one where Poe is drinking with the killer and the movements of the two men are literally mirror images of one another. There is also a chase through a misty forest which has a surreal quality that Poe might have approved of. However, for all the good scenes there are a few that don’t work very well, such as the ball scene where Emily is kidnapped. It seemed a bit too formulaic.

Eve is a little bland as Emily; it’s hard to see how Poe would have fallen in love with her. Gleeson gleefully chews scenery and seems to be having a great time. Evans has a thankless job of being the stolid heroic Fields but his heroism must remain second fiddle to Poe’s. I wouldn’t mind seeing a film about Fields somewhere down the line although given the anemic box office of this film that is about as unlikely as finding out the real cause of Poe’s death is.

The movie carries a decent entertainment value which overshadows the unevenness of the structure and the sometimes egregious liberties with history and fact that the writers chose to take. Again, one must remember this wasn’t intended to be a documentary about Edgar Allen Poe but a fanciful tale of what might have been. It doesn’t always work but for those deciding what to see if The Avengers is sold out, this makes a pretty decent alternative.

REASONS TO GO: Keeps you interested from beginning to end. Cusack channels Nicolas Cage a bit here.

REASONS TO STAY: Uneven in quality. Too many anachronisms.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the murders are pretty gruesome and there are some pretty disturbing images from time to time; definitely not for the squeamish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first trailer for the film was released online on the anniversary of Poe’s death (October 7, 1849).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100. The reviews are trending towards the negative side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: From Hell

EDGAR ALLE POE LOVERS: The character who was murdered via “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Rufus Griswold, was an actual person who actually survived Poe. Griswold had a vendetta against Poe and was inexplicably named as his literary executor, using his position to assassinate the character of Poe after his death, portraying him as a drug-addled, depraved madman, using “letters” purported to have been written by Poe but later proven to have been forgeries as proof.  His murder was more wishful thinking than fact-based in this context.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: FriendsWith Benefits

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