What do you get if you merge together old-fashioned Gothic mid-19th century aesthetics with a modern day stylised sensibility?
The answer is The Raven, a part intriguing but part frustrating experience in that it has an interesting mystery at its core – a whodunit that actually keeps you guessing who did it – but constantly feels like two types of movies forced together, fighting for screen time.
John Cusack plays Edgar Allan Poe, the world famous and renowned poet (who wrote “The Raven” of the title), and the film presents a fictionalised account of the last 4 days of his life. A serial killer is on the loose, basing his grisly murders on Poe’s stories and naturally the police suspect Poe himself, triggered by the murder of a writer he had a previous feud with. But in discovering it couldn’t possibly be Poe, the police enlist his help to catch the killer who has also kidnapped Poe’s love interest, Emily (Alice Eve).
The film is directed by James McTeigue, who made the initially (somewhat) criticised but now much-loved V For Vendetta and the fun if wafer-thin Ninja Assassin. His directorial style is of a heightened sensibility, everything is grandiose and exaggerated in a lot of ways. And while in this case it makes for a interesting film to look at, and a fun ride, that style clashes with the story being told and the period in which it’s set.
John Cusack is as watchable a screen presence as ever, his wide-eyed manic nature – strangely evoking the king of such acting style, Nicolas Cage – often works very well to engage with this particular representation of Poe. Scattered throughout the rest of the film are an eclectic collection of actors, from the surprisingly good Luke Evans (last seen in the terrible Three Musketeers blockbuster and the lackluster Immortals) as the main detective to the entirely wasted Brendan Gleeson as the suspecting “gun totin'” father of Poe’s love interest.
I don’t know exactly what The Raven is trying to say about Poe that isn’t already well written about, nor do I know quite what audience it’s trying to please. Those who are interested in Poe might think it disrespectful or worse, just stupid. And those who have never read a word of his writing might be miffed at how much it steeps itself in his world. Attempts at mixing what is essentially an olden days version of CSI with the grisly murder scenes – when you evoke the Saw franchise you know you’re in trouble – don’t work like they should and, again, give off that feeling of two types of movies trying to share the space where only one film can go.
As the film goes on things become increasingly ridiculous and that is both part of the fun and an easy way for the audience to lose emotional or intellectual engagement with the story. It’s nonsense, and damagingly takes itself far too seriously without knowing how silly and over-the-top it is. It reminded me quite a bit of Roland Emmerich’s Shakespeare blockbuster Anonymous: preposterous and ludicrous but with something intrinsically enjoyable about that.