The Purloined Movie
Oh, I so wanted to love this flick. Two hot guys — John Cusack and Luke Evans — hunt down a killer in 1840s Baltimore. A killer inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. And one of the investigators is Poe himself? There is too much awesome in this fantastic (and fantastical) premise for a proper geek girl such as myself to be properly rational about her anticipation. I know I expected too much. But, you know, the movie, it sort of promised a lot.
My disappointment is more crushing than it logically should be. The Raven is not a terrible film. But it’s not an especially good one, either. It comes nowhere near living up to its “Edgar Allan Poe solves mysteries” potential. It’s pretty much a standard serial killer flick dressed up in 19th-century drag. Which kinda really doesn’t make sense at all. The law-enforcement concepts of “serial murder” and that someone could be a “serial killer” did not develop until the latter half of the 20th century, more than a hundred years later. The events of this movie are happening even decades before Jack the Ripper. And yet there’s a newspaper headline here screaming “serial killer,” and an investigation that takes the idea for granted. Of course, it’s entirely probable that serial killers have existed throughout human history, and that someone might have stumbled onto that fact prior to the 1960s or 70s. It’s even entirely likely that that might have been someone such as Poe in his last days — which is the temporal setting here — so that he didn’t have the chance to get his ideas down on paper before he died. And yet this feels barely distinguishable from an episode of CSI, in which criminal psychology is readily understood as an everyday thing.
I’m not even complaining about anachronism. That’s not the issue. What’s missing from The Raven is a sense of intellectual discovery. I know this is a lot to expect from Hollywood, but I stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that. There’s no reason why this movie couldn’t be smarter than it is without being any less gory or actiony or whatever it is that Hollywood thinks audiences want to see. But the script, by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare*, cannot be bothered, and neither can director James McTeigue, which is truly mysterious, because his V for Vendetta managed to combine brains and brawn brilliantly. The concept of a serial killer is so radical that even sophisticated 20th-century law-enforcement types took decades to accept it — it certainly would have been a macabre yet thrilling idea to someone like Poe, especially if he believed that he was witness to possibly the first example of it. There’s a lot of similarity between those who write about human emotion and experience and those who investigate crime — which is about sussing out motive and resulting action — and yet The Raven is entirely lacking in any recognition of this fact. What writers do and what cops do is pretty much the same thing, just from different angles and with different stakes. (No one dies if a writer’s novel is psychologically ridiculous.)
The core relationship here could be and should be the one between Cusack’s (Hot Tub Time Machine, 2012) Poe and Evan’s (Immortals, The Three Musketeers) Baltimore police detective Emmett Fields, as they navigate the discovery of their similarities and as they find an intellectual common ground. (That’s right: I used the I word again. You can’t stop me.) As much as I complain about how women characters are sidelined in movies, sometimes a story really is appropriately all about men. The Raven could have gladly done without Alice Eve’s (Sex and the City 2, She’s Out of My League) Emily, Poe’s beloved who is threatened by this serial killer and hence Poe’s motivation for assisting Fields. Eve is a fine actor, so it’s not that she’s the problem, but… really, movie? a damsel in distress? The Raven almost gets Poe, with a wonderful early scene in which he goes up against his newspaper editor (Kevin McNally: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Valkyrie), who demands Poe write more sensational gory horror fiction and stop writing the depressed and angry poetry criticism he prefers to write. The movie runs right up to something interesting, has it right on the tip of its tongue, but then it’s all: Hey! Look over here! Pretty blonde lady in danger!
Oh, and there’s this, too: the killer is modeling his murders on stuff that happens in Poe’s fiction. And yet nothing actually feels very Poe-ish beyond the Saw-ish scenarios. The red herrings are uninteresting, and the final resolution to the mystery feels rushed and pointless. In the end, it’s very much a lot of effort to get nowhere compelling. *yawn*
It’s all a crying, bleeding shame. Perhaps someday John Cusack will have a chance to do Poe real justice in a better movie. The actor deserves it, the writer deserves it, and we deserve it.
*Seriously? Hannah Shakespeare? If I were a writer with that name, I’d change it unless I was absolutely convinced I was a genius. Because, you know, the snark just writes itself…