There are some good things to say about the newest film by director James McTeigue (“Ninja Assassin,” “V For Vendetta“), a combination of “Sleepy Hollow,” “Saw,” “Se7en” and the latter-day Sherlock Holmes films.
First, it acquaints the uninitiated with the works of Edgar Allan Poe, one of America’s most creative and tortured writers (Poe, while unappreciated in his time, wrote “The Murders of the Rue Morgue,” which is considered by many to be the first detective story). Secondly, it gives the author the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle treatment, bringing his literary characters to life and trying to make them cool superhero modern-day detectives (which is a nice change of pace as several of the previous adaptations in the 60’s starred Vincent Price and were directed by Roger Corman).
The Raven, the newest installment, is also one of the first to actually tell the story of the troubled, alcoholic novelist and begins by reminding us that he was found near death on a park bench in Baltimore on Oct. 7, 1849. For years, it was assumed he died of the effects of alcoholism and exposure, but a recent investigation and documentary has fueled the possibility it may have actually been murder.
The story here definitely takes one side of this argument, revolving around events during the last month of his life.
While an angry, drunken, almost destitute Poe (John Cusack, “2012,” “High Fidelity”) scrounges out a living writing critical reviews of other, better-known poets and authors (Longfellow, Emerson, etc.), a series of murders takes place in the Maryland city. Soon, police detective Fields (Luke Evans, “The Immortals,” “Clash Of the Titans“) sees a familiar pattern: The crimes are eerily similar to Poe’s stories — and the writer is a prime suspect. Once he is cleared of suspicion, however, he becomes Fields’ right hand man in helping to solve the killings, which reach a level of horrid gore, with throats slashed, limbs hacked, bodies cleaved in half and lips sewn together, among other niceties.
Things hit home, though, when the mad person kidnaps his beloved fiancée, Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve, “She’s Out of My League,” “Sex and the City 2”), in a situation straight out of “The Masque of the Red Death.” It’s now personal, so The Raven becomes somewhat of an action/adventure tale, as well.
It’s all a decent ride, but not nearly as exciting as the rebooted Sherlock Holmes franchise, and Cusack is no Robert Downey, Jr. (or even a Johnny Depp, who brought Icabod Crane to life in the Tim Burton adaptation of Washington Irving). He plays a convincing violent drunk, but his scenes with Evans are not very effective and there is little chemistry between him and Eve.
Adding some small, but intriguing support is Brendan Gleeson (“Braveheart,” “The Guard“) as Emily’s father, Captain Hamilton, and Kevin McNally (“Valkyrie,” “Pirates Of the Caribbean”) as Maddux, Poe’s perpetually ticked-off newspaper editor (are there any other kind?).
The movie, though, is expected to carried by the two male leads (as Eve spends most of the time hidden away), and they just barely manage to pull it off.
Their lack of bravado isn’t the only issue with The Raven, however. There were a few other problems, too, including newspapers which scream with 40 column headlines, “Grisly Double Murder” and “Serial Killer At Large.” Anyone who knows ANYTHING about such publications in the 19th Century realizes that they were printed in vertical columns, sometimes eight to 10 across the page and the huge headlines as we know them today did not become fashionable until the 1940s (if they know that they’ll also know that the term “serial killer” was not even coined until the 1960s). Poe also drops the “F” bomb, which certainly did not exist as an expletive in 1849 (it was an acronym from the 1930s), and seemed to be inserted only as a nod to modern audiences (if not modern — often questionable — sensibilities).
Those are minor details, I know, but when making a period piece, it is nice to actually stick to the period. As far as sets and costume design, the film is fairly accurate, which is certainly appreciated.
Overall, The Raven is an engaging mystery thriller that suffers from some drawbacks that can’t be overlooked (especially by a purist). And thanks to a dragging second act that could have used some judicious editing, the movie is about 10-15 minutes longer than necessary, despite the fact that it only has a 111-minute running time.