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Rated R for some intense gore, disturbing images, language and thematic elements
posted May 4, 2012 - 4:24:18pm
The Raven has a premise so automatically familiar, so obvious in retrospect, that the most shocking thing about it is it hasn’t been done a dozen times before. A serial killer in 1849 Baltimore begins a series of deadly reenactments of Edgar Allan Poe’s most sinister short stories, and investigators enlist a drunken and wayward Poe – here portrayed by John Cusack – to help solve the crimes.
Throughout the film, the killer riffs on Poe’s greatest hits: “The Telltale Heart”; “The Cask of Amontillado”; “The Pit and the Pendulum”; “Mask of the Red Death.” If you happen to be a fan of Poe’s work, you’ll have a bit of fun trying to solve the film’s riddles with the characters.
This is a good concept. Poe is a loved historic figure and a revered writer, and his life was just mysterious enough that it lends itself well to a murder mystery thriller like The Raven.
Still, the film plays like a reboot of some 1980s suspense flick that never existed. Director James McTeigue tries to do for Poe what 2009’s Sherlock Holmes did for Scotland Yard’s greatest detective: Make him hip and sarcastic within the strictest confines of a period piece.
The film’s two scriptwriters, Hannah Shakespeare (yes) and Ben Livingston, have exactly one screenplay credit between them. They aren’t particularly experienced, and it shows in through blatant symbolism (count the times you see a raven on-screen and you might run out of fingers) and clunky dialogue.
Popcorn represents how fun a film is to watch—how funny it is, how exciting the special effects are, and how enjoyable the story is on repeated viewings. The perfect popcorn movie would be one that never got stale regardless of how many times you’ve seen it.
Most characters in the film either function as tropes, such as the kidnapped love interest Emily (Alice Eve) and her disapproving father (Brendan Gleeson); as foils to play rigid against Poe’s personality, such as the honorable Detective Fields (Luke Evans); or plot devices serving to be killed or otherwise move the story forward.
The writing is adequate, but it feels mechanical: There must be a love interest, so there is; there must be a by-the-books inspector, so there is. They don’t need to have much personality, so they don’t.
By contrast, the alternate-reality version of Poe is developed fairly well as a slovenly, penniless drunk, smarter than everyone around him but with no credibility left with which to prove it. But his one-liners sound a little more like he’s the precursor to an internet troll than the greatest literary mind of his time. Although Cusack only looks vaguely Poe-ish with the requisite facial hair, which, for our purposes, we will call the Poetee, he is quite likable and his performance keeps The Raven interesting. Much of the movie flatlines when he’s not in the scene.
There is maybe one tense moment through The Raven’s duration, and it comes near the beginning when audiences might still buy in to the suspense. The rest feels like it’s just going through the motions of a standard thriller. The film gives a few red herrings to follow, and when those leads turn out to be false, it feels disappointing, because perhaps they would have made for a more entertaining film.
For all its problems, The Raven is still fun, and it’s got a wonderful concept. But it’s hard not to imagine what this story might have been like with a more experienced scriptwriter or director. But to its credit, as the film winds down, it all but promises an eye-rolling sequel before – satisfyingly – going the complete opposite direction in the final seconds.
Stars & Popcorn grade: 2 stars, 3 1/2 popcorn
— Hunter serves as editor-in-chief for movie-review website Stars and Popcorn. To learn more about Stars and Popcorn, visit www.starsandpopcorn.com. Send e-mail to Hunter at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sponsored by Liebe Entertainment Group, Marketplace 8. Click here to see showtimes for The Raven
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