Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Raven

Alternate Title:  The Plot and the Pandering

One sentence synopsis:  Edgar Allen Poe must catch a serial killer inspired by his own work.

Things Havoc liked:  There is a scene in this film where Edgar Allen Poe, broke and in desperate need of a drink, thunders into a bar and announces who he is, only to be met with ridicule and non-recognition, to which he responds by exploding and calling his audience 'philistines'. These are the sorts of bribes that movie directors put in their films when they really want me to like them.'

John Cusack is something of an acquired taste, and I've never really bought most of his forays outside of the romantic comedy genre in which he got his start. That said, he's a decent enough actor, and in this movie tries to infuse his character with all the blinding Gothic madness he can muster. I'm not sure the result is terribly accurate historically, but it certainly provides a bit of interest in a film that would otherwise be very procedural. His Poe is not the real Poe, but it's an interesting enough character (possibly more so than the real one would be), and he enlivens the movie more than he detracts from it with his attempts to channel Nicholas Cage.

Also coming out on the positive side of the line are veteran Irish actor Brendan Gleeson and Brit Kevin McNally, both of whom are fine actors here playing various cantankerous old men (Poe's love interest's father and his publisher, respectively). Neither one has a particularly rounded character to play, Gleeson hates Poe for wooing his daughter and the McNally despairs of Poe ever offering him another masterpiece, but they do manage to infuse both roles with a modicum of interest. Gleeson's character even manages to play against type later in the film, a spark of imagination in an otherwise pedestrian script.

Things Havoc disliked: I didn't even get three paragraphs before I had to start on this stuff, did I?

The Raven is a very formulaic film, aping the style and concept of police cat-and-mouse games like Seven, Zodiac, or Copycat, to name some of the better examples. The serial killer sends clues to Poe and the police detective (Luke Evans), daring them to catch him in a game of wits. We've all seen this plot a hundred times before, and better executed, yet the film seems to think that this idea is fresh and new, and that the audience will be shocked by the very notion of a killer who dares send clues to the very people trying to catch him. I played a video game last week made in 2003 wherein a man pitches a script very similar to this one to a Hollywood studio and is laughed out the door for being an unimaginative hack. That should suffice to explain my objection here.

But even an old story can be done well. Sadly, the acting generally lets this script down. Evans, as the police detective, is a complete cypher, speaking in a persistently gruff, "serious" voice and without any character points save that he is determined to catch the killer. We get no hints from the actor as to a deeper motivation (not that a phoned-in one would have helped much, but anything would be nice), no clues as to his personality and character, nothing but the bare minimum required to proceed with the plot. A similar fate befalls Alice Eve, who plays Poe's love interest, kidnapped (of course) by the killer in circumstances that are flimsy even by the standards of this film, and who appears to be acting under the influence of heavy sedatives. When captured by a raving serial killer and buried alive in a coffin, she can barely muster enough interest to raise her voice.

The plot, meanwhile, is not worth the sacrifice of characterization. While I won't spoil everything, I will note that the killer in this case claims to be a criminal mastermind, yet his master plan requires that all of the many dozens of bullets fired in his direction over the course of the film somehow contrive to miss, that none of the people he gruesomely murders look upwards at any given moment, and that the incredibly wealthy man whose daughter has just been kidnapped will not, in fact, hire large numbers of armed men to escort him as he rides to a location at which he expects to encounter the kidnapper. Moreover, some elements simply don't make sense. At one point, the killer fools the police by escaping out of a window that has a spring mechanism built into it that only unlocks when the correct button is pressed. The problem being that the killer is escaping from his victim's apartment, meaning he was lucky enough to select a victim who happened to build an elaborate escape hatch into her own windows drawn from a sketchy reference in an Edgar Allen Poe story. Simple issues like this point to a script that was not properly thought out.

Final thoughts:    This isn't an awful movie, by any stretch, but it is strictly mediocre in almost every way. Though Cusack may do his best, the material here leaves him nothing to work with, and his performance, odd though it is, simply isn't quirky enough to carry the interest of the audience. While the film isn't exactly predictable, the only reason it's not is because the logic to the movie makes no sense at all, and the revelations about the killer's identity and motives seem to come from left field, leaving us (or at least me) wondering what the point of the whole exercise was.

Final Score:  4/10

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