I love it when movies take ridiculous dramatic liberties with real-life people and events. Not so much in something like The Social Network, wherein the people depicted are still alive in our real world, and the movie plays so close to reality that it could be deemed troubling; more like in Inglourious Basterds, where seeing an over-the-top scenario play out in a fully realized cinematic world can excite the imagination and even be a cathartic experience. James McTeigue's The Raven technically falls into this category by offering one possible series of events that led to Edgar Allan Poe's mysterious death, but the film itself is so monotonous and predictable that it ultimately cancels out whatever excitement the premise holds and turns into a slog of a murder mystery more interested in capitalizing on the success of the Saw franchise than living up to its potential.
Director: James McTeigue
Starring: John Cusack, Alice Eve, Luke Evans
John Cusack's performance as Poe is the only thing that makes the movie tolerable. His incarnation of the famous poet has a constant chip on his shoulder, begging to be recognized for his work. Cusack himself speaks with a mellifluous musicality to his voice, and he sounds totally different than everyone else in the movie. While I'll admit that this choice bothered me upon first hearing it, I quickly realized it is actually by design; what could be viewed as an inconsistent manner of speech between characters is actually a interesting aural trait that separates the highly intelligent and creative Poe from his less gifted peers. He also has a bit of a sense of humor here, something this entire film could have greatly benefited from. "If I would have known my work would have such an effect on people," Poe muses at a crime scene, "I would have devoted more time to eroticism."
Unfortunately, we've reached the end of my compliments about this movie. Because of my previously mentioned proclivity toward liking premises like this, I really wanted to like The Raven, but it didn't quite turn out that way. The plot involves a painfully standard forbidden romance between the down-and-out Poe and a beautiful young heiress (Alice Eve) with a disapproving father (Brendan Gleeson), and a serial killer that takes inspiration from the twisted killings in Poe's short stories. A police detective (Luke Evans) enlists Poe's help to track the killer, and when Eve's character is captured and buried alive, things start to get personal.
Though I acknowledge the irony that Poe's original works are a huge part of the reason we have horror cinema in the first place, and the body horror aspects certainly influenced the Saw franchise, I can also acknowledge the lack of originality on the filmmakers' part to make that seem fresh. It's John Carter syndrome all over again: just because something "came first," doesn't mean it's not the filmmakers' responsibility to give modern audiences something that isn't a rehash of a bunch of things we've seen before. All of the grotesque murders in this film don't have nearly the impact that they should because we've seen this all done before, and in a very similar style to how it happens here. Yes, this is a period piece, but similar narrative procedural elements override fancy costumes and production design in this case.
The rest of the movie is a fill-in-the-blank mystery that never demands anything interesting from its actors or the audience, resulting in a sluggishly-paced "thriller" that rarely even provides cause for a raised eyebrow, let alone edge-of-your-seat excitement. The supporting performances aren't worth talking about; even Gleeson, an excellent actor, is stymied here by a lackluster script written by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare.
Sadly, The Raven is the nail in the proverbial coffin of my opinion of James McTeigue. He's a director who showed loads of promise in V For Vendetta, his directorial debut, but as I've watched him step out of the shadow of The Wachowski siblings (his mentors), it's becoming increasingly clear that McTeigue doesn't have the same impact as a director without their influence. The Raven is a film with an interesting premise that feels like it was run over by a truck full of boring ideas, leaving remnants of its potential lying shattered among the tire tracks of banality. Until next time...