Movie Review: The Raven
Rating: R (grisly images, bloody violence)
Length: 111 minutes
Release Date: April 27, 2012
Directed by: James McTeigue
Stars: 3 out of 5
"The Raven" is a historical mystery that is heavy on the mystery and rather light on the history. That is because it features Edgar Allen Poe, a real-life author, but fictionalizes quite a bit about his final days. The fictionalization is done for dramatic purposes and is quite effective. Anyone looking for an accurate depiction of Poe's life should take the film with a grain of salt and embrace it for what it is-fictionalized entertainment featuring a historical figure.
The story begins in Baltimore in the late 1840s when forensic pathology was in its infancy. Police detectives who investigated murders didn't have DNA testing or fancy crime labs. The concept of a serial killer was still foreign to most, which made solving crimes that much harder.
When we meet Poe (John Cusack), he is a drunk who is nearly broke. He earns a meager existence working for Henry Maddox (Kevin McNally), the editor of a local tabloid newspaper. Maddox hired Poe because of his grisly writing but is upset because lately Poe has been turning in more introspective copy. Intelligent debates and criticisms don't sell as many tabloid newspapers as eerie poems do. Poe has no interest in going back to his previous work, especially once he becomes a murder suspect because of those eerie writings.
Two women are found murdered in a locked room. The case is investigated by Emmett Fields (Luke Evans), who surmises that the murderer escaped in the same way that a character in one of Poe's poems did. This makes him an instant suspect. Later, another murder has ties to another of Poe's poems. All three murders would be seriously disturbing today, and are especially shocking in the 1840s.
Fields later realizes that Poe is not the murderer but enlists him to help solve the crimes, since nobody knows Poe's work better than Poe himself. Poe agrees, but only because he receives a ransom letter from the murderer, who has kidnapped his beloved Emily (Alice Eve). Now Poe has some actual motivation to help solve the crimes instead of just being a spectator to the hoopla surrounding the cases.
The murderer seems to love Poe's work and goes through great pains to stage all of his crimes in ways that mirror Poe's poems. Poor Emily is to be the victim from the poem "The Premature Burial" which is exactly what it sounds like. She is about to be buried alive and does not have much time left.
Writers Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare seem to really have a handle on what fans of Poe's work would want. Since these fans are largely the target audience, the film involves the blood and gore fans of Poe's macabre work might expect. It is occasionally a little jolting to see so much graphic violence in a period piece like this, but that seems to be the effect that director James McTeigue was aiming for. In this way, it is similar to McTeigue's previous effort, "V for Vendetta," which also had some jolting scenes that keep the audience off balance.
Although this is a murder mystery at heart, there are plenty of other dramatic elements as well. A large chunk of the film is spent following Poe and Fields as they race against the clock to save Eve. At the start of the journey, the two don't seem to like each other very much. Their disdain softens considerably as the investigation progresses. By the end of the film, they find common ground and develop a mutual respect. The progression of their relationship may not be the focus of the movie, but it is a true and unexpected highlight.
"The Raven" allows John Cusack to really flex his dramatic muscles, since his character goes through many changes. From the drunken opening scenes where Poe is full of verbal vitriol to the later part of the film where he is desperately trying to save the one woman he loves, he shows a full range of emotions.
A perhaps intentional consequence of the film is that it may introduce Poe's work to a whole new audience. At the very least, people who haven't read his work in a long time may find themselves revisiting it. The film manages to make its audiences want go home and read or re-read the poems it features, not the least of which is "The Raven," the very poem that inspired the movie's title.