‘The Raven’; a series of short stories does not a great novel make

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The Raven
Directed by James McTeigue
Written by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare
USA, 2012

In a room of posh, opulent women, Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) commands their undivided attention by reciting the film’s titular poem, The Raven. Enamored, one of the women tries her hand at poetry as well. Crude, unsophisticated and juvenile, her poem is not only bad, it’s laughably so. But not wanting to disparage her, Poe patronizes her work, contriving deeper meaning to her essentially elementary endeavor.

As a metaphor for this film, this scene cannot be anymore apt, because although The Raven tries to be poetical by channeling the actual work of Edgar Allan Poe, the end result is a pedestrian affair that neither ingratiates nor elevates its literary source material.

In the 19th century, a spate of gruesome murders in Baltimore begins to arouse the attention of Detective Emmett Fields (Luke Evans). His intuition turns to suspicion when he ascertains the inspiration for the crimes; the collective short stories penned by writer and social persona non grata, Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe himself is dragged into the investigation, and when his newly bride-to-be, Emily (Alice Eve), is captured by the killer, he must track him down and stop him before it’s too late.

Essentially, this is a gothic retelling of David Fincher’s Se7en. Or even a gothic retelling of David Fincher’s Zodiac. In fact, the film seems to find as much inspiration from Fincher as it does from Poe.

The film’s central conceit is to try and amalgamate Poe’s work into one narrative, but a series of short stories does not a great novel make. On their own, the stories are great, but there aren’t any tangible connections between them, other than their author and his affinity for all things gruesome.

In its effort to tie the stories together, the film consequently becomes frustratingly contrived. Sequences tend to happen without any warning or premeditation, and because they feel manufactured for the sake of driving the film forward, everything seems artificial. With such indifference to narrative cohesion, the details and intricacies of the story become trivial, and because the film is overly saturated with these elements, everything is unnecessarily complicated and generally confusing (the identity of the killer being the perfect example).

This is made worse by the equally confusing acting of its two leads, Evans and Cusack. Evans is the typical over-zealous detective, whose intensity and dedication is only matched by his unflinching look of discontent and humorless demeanor.  Cusack, on the other hand, acts like he’s in some Shakespearean stage play, with his dialogue and mannerisms being over-exaggerated, and at times, it’s as if he’s channeling Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes. Although they’re both overacting, it can feel like they’re both overacting in two completely different films.

The juxtaposition of these two characters summarizes the conflicting and muddled tone of the film, which tries to simultaneously take itself seriously while also trying to add moments of levity to the picture. The result is a film that never truly has a genuine sense of trepidation or tension.

Even though the screenplay was written by a Shakespeare (not that one), the film is bereft of strong writing. A self-professed mishmash of pre-existing literary material, The Raven surprises with just how unoriginal it can be.

Justin Li

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