This review originally ran after film's U.K. release in March.
About ten minutes into James McTeigue's "The Raven," a large, hairy man -- a writer and critic, as it turns out -- is strapped to a table by a mysterious figure. A mighty blade, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's "The Pit And The Pendulum," hangs forbodingly above him. And to his unseen captor, he screams "I'm just a critic! Why? Why would you do this to me?" After sitting through a further hundred minutes of McTeigue's inept, idiotic period thriller, we knew exactly how he felt.
The idea of taking a literary author of crime and horror and planting them in a murder investigation of their own is not a new one: indeed, it looked for a while that this film's thunder was going to be stolen by an ABC pilot "Poe" that never made it to air. But we're not sure any such examples have taken the conceit and used it quite as poorly as the filmmakers have here, particularly given the intriguing premise: at 40 years old, Poe was found on a park bench, delirious and close to death, with the last few days of his life unaccounted for.
After opening with Poe (John Cusack) on that foggy Baltimore bench, the script, by actor Ben Livingston and TV veteran Hannah Shakespeare, flashes back a week, with the writer and poet recently returned to the city (as explained by Cusack's first line, something along the lines of "As I have recently returned to Baltimore..."), broke and in pursuit of his lady love Emily (Alice Eve), whose father Colonel Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson) disapproves of the match, threatening Poe away.
Simultaneously, Detectives Fields (Luke Evans) and Cantrell (Oliver Jackson-Cohen of "Faster"), come across a grisly murder scene in a seemingly locked-room with a mother, near-decapitated, and her daughter, stuffed up a chimney. Fields swiftly realizes that the killing is styled after one of Poe's stories, "Murders at the Rue Morgue." Initially suspected of the killing, Poe is soon drafted to help the police after another body is found, of a rival of the writer, bisected in the manner of "The Pit And The Pendulum." And the stakes are swiftly raised when the killer abducts Emily, tasking Poe to solve a series of clues, tied to more murders, if he is to save her.
There are an infinite number of places to start when it comes to answering the question "What went wrong with 'The Raven?'" but it's likely that the issues started with the script; a half-baked mystery that would feel unsatisfying even on some sub-"CSI" TV show. Since the initial couple of killings and clues are only loosely tied to Poe's work, the culprit is obvious from the moment he walks on screen, and the film only manages to stretch to feature length due to the investigators being among the stupidest detectives ever to feature in a movie. Ernst Lubitsch once advised writers to "Let the audience add up two plus two. They'll love you forever," but one suspects that Inspector Clouseau would crack the case before Fields and Cantrell.
Structurally, too, it's something of a disaster. In place of suspense we get repetition, including three scenes of the killer nearly being caught by Cusack or Evans, but getting away. Another three in a row of Eve scratching away at the inside of a coffin with a knitting needle. Instead of even a single memorable set piece, we get indistinct figures running around dimly-lit sets reminiscent less of Baltimore circa 1849 than leftovers from the shoots of "From Hell" and "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."
In places, one starts to suspect, as one did with "The Wicker Man" or "The Happening," that the filmmakers are in on the joke. Surely the decision to give Poe a pet raccoon is the stuff of an Adam McKay gut-buster, and not a serious-minded thriller? The quotably clunky lines, the tortured writer montages, the sheer idiocy of the characters (a full thirty seconds after reading a clue from the killer revealing a victim to be a missing sailor, Cusack discovers a nautical tattoo on the corpse and announces "Now we know what became of that sailor" -- good one, Sherlock) all seem to point towards a campiness that might have made the film faintly enjoyable. But given how seat-shiftingly boring the majority of the film is, it's not enough to save it.
And McTeigue's direction is just as much as fault as the screenplay, from the weightless, stakes-free feel of many of the dialogue scenes, to the frankly incompetent way in which key sequences are shot -- witness the progression of Alice Eve's character being on a dance floor to the announcement that she's been kidnapped in about five seconds flat. That's even without mentioning the mind-boggling closing credits, seemingly styled after a Bond movie, and set puzzlingly to U.N.K.L.E & Ian Astbury's "Burn My Shadow." Whatever goodwill might remain from "V For Vendetta" should evaporate, as a long sentence in director's jail awaits.
As for the cast...one can only feel sorry for them. Cusack has always been a little uneasy in period roles, but he at least is committed, which is more than can be said for some of the veterans, like Gleeson and Kevin R. McNally, who are visibly contemplating what they're going to have for dinner when they're on screen. Eve gets nothing to do except get locked in a box, although when she does get a rare scene, she seems to mistake "traumatized" for "unbelievably stoned." And Evans might have a decent screen presence, but he's also given the single grimmest, humorless screen policeman in history, communicating almost entirely in cop thriller cliches. And despite half-hearted attempts to develop a buddy-buddy relationship between him and Cusack, the pair have no chemistry whatsoever.
It is, in short, by some distance the worst film we've seen in this young year. It makes us grieve sincerely for Cusack, one of our favorite stars, and for everyone who wasted their time and energy on the picture. All that being said, with six weeks before the film opens in the U.S, maybe there's time to salvage something by embracing the absurdity. Give it a re-edit, with a comedy score, and turn it into something like an 1840s version of "The Naked Gun." You could even bring Seth Rogen in to lend his voice to Poe's pet raccoon. It would only be slightly more ridiculous than what the filmmakers have ended up with. [F]
"The Raven" is out now in the U.K, and will hit theaters in the U.S. on April 27th.