James McTeigue | 106 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA, Hungary & Spain / English | 15 / R
John Cusack stars as literary giant (figuratively) Edgar Allan Poe in this wannabe-Victorian-Se7en from the director of V for Vendetta.
Set in the days leading up to Poe’s death (a period in the author’s life which is apparently shrouded in mystery), the film sees a serial killer recreating horrendous scenes from Poe’s tales, leading the police to rope in the author in the hope he can help solve the case. A game develops between the killer and the writer, as they race against time to stop more deaths and all that palaver.
Dark and gruesome with the killer having a clear line to follow in his murders? Wannabe Se7en, see. Unfortunately, it doesn’t follow up on that notion too well. Screenwriters Hannah Shakespeare (helluva name to live up to) and Ben Livingston don’t seem to know what to do with Poe’s tales, so there’s no rhyme nor reason to the killings — they’re plucked at random, possibly from the killer’s most favouritest stories, possibly just the ones someone thought would be the most cinematic. And whereas Se7en’s gore is shocking because it’s used sparingly, is kind of plausible, and is set very much in the real world, here we get a kind of gothic horror feel, complete with copious CGI blood at points.
That said, I got the feeling that The Raven is sort of an R by default. (Note that it received a 15 over here, which is also the stomping ground of harder-edged PG-13s.) There’s gore and the odd swear word, but none of it is lingered on. Most of the obvious blood ‘n’ guts is constrained to one scene, and I believe I counted the PG-13’s requisite single use of the F-word. That they didn’t tone it all down just a smidge to match, and so go for the box office-friendly PG-13, is a surprise in these days.
Setting aside comparisons to Fincher’s masterpiece, I’ve read that one critic described The Raven as “Saw meets Sherlock Holmes”. Obviously I maintain that my allusion is better, but I can see where they’re coming from. However, apart from one murder inspired by The Pit and the Pendulum and someone being (temporarily) buried alive, it’s not that Saw-like; and it lacks the humour or action of Ritchie’s Holmes, or the deductive reasoning of any version. But, y’know, aside from that… Additionally, the climax is somewhat reminiscent of A Study in Pink. Might be coincidence, but on the other hand that episode did go out nearly two years before this was released…
I don’t know how historically accurate this tale is, but I imagine not very — I expect we’d know if Poe had been involved in a headline-making murder investigation that led to his death. But that’s fine — it’s the embodiment of the notion that a fiction film is an entertainment, not a history lesson. As for the author’s characterisation, I don’t know much about Poe, but can’t imagine Cusack is an accurate interpretation. He’s solid as this interpretation, though: a charming, roguish figure, living hand-to-mouth through his fondness for alcohol and dramatic wooing of a woman whose father hates him.
The rest of the cast are from Hollywood’s usual go-to for period tales: Brits; if not entirely then mostly so. (The film was shot in Hungary and Serbia, so I suppose our thesps have the additional advantage of being geographically favourable to Americans.) You know you’re getting a level of quality there, then, though for me Kevin R. McNally lets the side down (again). He’s only a supporting character and is fine most of the time, but there’s one bit when he’s talking to the lead detective and just rattles off his line… It’s not the world’s greatest speech, but you can hear there was meant to be more nuance and quiet in there.
That could be the fault of the director, of course. A first assistant director for the Wachowskis in the days of The Matrix trilogy, James McTeigue graduated to feature directing with the adaptation of V for Vendetta, which I think is a very good film. He followed it with Ninja Assassin, which by all accounts is dreadful (I have, by one way or another, wound up with the BD, so someday I’ll find out). I think The Raven suggests his first film may have been fluke, or was at least aided by his mentors (who were also writers and producers on V). The actual direction-y directing here is mostly fine, although on the whole the film is too dark; sometimes literally too dark to see what’s going on, and that’s not aided by occasionally clunky editing.
I’ve not even mentioned the inappropriately modern title sequence (doubly bad as it comes after a rather sombre ending), or that the neat use of a raven in the film’s logo on the poster remains the entire project’s strongest aspect.
Se7en is probably my favourite film ever made, but criticisms that it’s quite a standard detective mystery are not invalid. It’s enlivened by Andrew Kevin Walker’s writing (great dialogue, engrossing structure, etc), some top-drawer performances (Freeman, Pitt, a loopy-calm Spacey), and, probably most of all, David Fincher’s inestimable touch. In making such a comparison it’s easy to see that The Raven lacks any of these, which renders it a solid period mystery, but no more.
The Raven is on Sky Movies Premiere at various times this week.