May 2nd, 2012

Review: 4/10 Can of Whoop Ass

 

The Raven

 

            There is perhaps no sign of failure in film more telling than when it elicits an unintentional response from the viewer.  It is proof that the film is hitting the wrong notes, at the wrong times, for the wrong reasons.  This is the same reason why REALLY bad movies are actually fun to watch: they miss the mark by so much that it feels like a conscious effort towards satire.  But at a lesser degree, because The Raven is not one of those TRULY awful films, the end sum is just an emotionally confusing, lackluster form of entertainment.  I found myself laughing at parts of this movie that were not supposed to be funny and feeling awkward at parts that were.  And above all, I felt a little sad that such a promising premise, full of historical intrigue, murder, and literary horror could fall so flat.  And yet, there it lies.

            But what a premise.  The Raven takes us back to the 19th century, attempting to pencil in the last few days of perhaps the greatest writer of short fiction America has ever laid claim to.  Edgar Allen Poe is depicted by John Cusack as a bitter drunkard who has lost his gift and all his money.  The only bright spot in his life is an upcoming engagement with the woman he loves, Emily, played with a radiant gentility by Alice Eve.  But, as with every other love affair in Poe’s melancholy lifetime, things go murderously wrong, this time in the form of a killer who wishes to recreate the very stories Poe had penned years before.  Emily is abducted and an outright challenge to Poe is declared by the killer, that he must write his way out of this final chapter in order to save his love.

            In many regards, with such a strong premise leading the way, this seems like it should be an easy film to make. All the screenwriters had to do was stay faithful to the source material and handpick the very best out of the infinite amount of fascinating details that exist in Poe’s collections of stories.  In other words, the writers only had to tell a story that was, in a sense, already written, using the material to direct the narrative.  But, with The Raven, I was reminded very much of Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s film about a journey through the literary past.  In that film, like the Raven, the connection to historical resources is superficial at best.  The Raven is decisively born out of Poe’s source material, in that all of his most famous works make an appearance: The Masque of the Red Death, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and even Annabel Lee.  Yet, the film never engaged me with those stories in any meaningful way.  If this film is meant as an ode to those masterpieces, it fails because I didn’t come away with any further appreciation for them or any newfound interest beyond what I came to the movie with.  For example, the Pit and the Pendulum recreation is as straightforward as one could get.  With no explanation or preparation, we just see a guy bound on a table, and the next thing you know, the pendulum is coming for him.  The entire scene takes all of 30 seconds, or only 5 or 6 full swings of the pendulum.  Visually, the pendulum looks striking, with its massive machinations illuminated by the backdrop of a primitive woodshed, but the scene does nothing towards affecting the viewer because of its quick length and lack of a buildup.  The guy is getting chopped up before we have even gotten a good look at the pendulum’s apparatus.  Where is the attempt to recreate the horror and anticipatory dread that makes The Pit and The Pendelum such a fascinating piece of literature?  The Raven seems unable or unwilling to truly interact with the stories it claims as inspiration.  Instead, it tries to coast on the borrowed credit of Poe’s lore and legend.

So what went wrong?  Primarily, this film suffers from a lack of an identity, or more specifically, it suffers from too many identities.  The narrative action seems to leapfrog from style to style, depending upon whatever a particular scene wants to service, with no particular purpose or endgame in mind.  Is The Raven meant to be a historical film?  A horror film?  A character study of Poe?  Romance?  Murder mystery?  It seems to want to be all of these things, and GREAT films can be many things at once: Forest Gump is just as funny as it is moving.  But because The Raven is predicated on such a particular person, time, and space (Poe, 19th century, Baltimore), it would have benefited from a more clearly wrought vision of what it wanted to say about those things.  Splashing into all the previously mentioned genres and styles at once leaves the film feeling unformed towards any of them.  This is what leads to what I spoke of at the beginning, about a film hitting the wrong notes at the wrong times.  For example, at one point in the film, the police raid a theater, with a play in progress, under suspicion that one of the stagehands might be the killer.  They round up the stagehands, and suddenly, it is clear one is missing.  It is clear that the other stagehands have nothing do with the case.  But yet, just before the Head Inspector takes Poe with him to go searching for the missing stagehand, he instructs his constables, referring to the other stagehands, “If any of these men move…SHOOT THEM!”  I laughed out loud, but it was soon clear to me that the line wasn’t meant to be humorous.  It was just a senseless line of misplaced emotion.  Later, a hint leads the search party to the tunnels below the streets, where they suspect Emily may be buried behind a brick wall (as in The Cask of Amontillado).  For the search, the Head Inspector explains, he will blow a whistle and all the men will scream Emily’s name in unison to try and get her attention.  The Head Inspector blows the whistle to give an example and Poe instantly blurts out, “EMMMMMIIIILLLLYYYYY!!!!”  Once again, I laughed.  Poe was supposed to be desperately searching for his kidnapped lover, who might be buried alive, and he is screaming with the idiocy of a simpleton.  It's hilarious, but also misplaced.  These scenes, like much of the film, just feel wrong.  I didn’t feel transplanted to the 19th century in any meaningful way, I don’t know Poe any better than I did before, and I certainly don’t care about the pointless plot Poe gets tangled into.

The film would have benefited from some likable characters.  Poe is ostensibly the hero, but he is riddled with narcissism and self-destructive tendencies.  Cusack plays Poe as the tortured genius that Poe probably was in real life, but that leaves his portrayal as whiney and annoying at times.  A way to soften Poe’s moody temperament would have been to give him a comical sidekick, like a lackey or drinking buddy, or hell, even a raven that spoke from time to time (even if it is only to say “Nevermore” at the perfect moment).  Instead, Poe is surrounded by people as abrasive as he is.  The inspector, played by Luke Evans, is one of the most one-dimensional examples of acting I’ve ever seen.  I bet if you go back, Evans doesn’t smile once, not once, throughout the entire film.  NO ONE is that serious all the time.  None of the other characters, from the villain himself, to the owner of the newspaper, to Emily’s father offer anything else but further examples of machismo and arrogance.  I would have welcomed anything to break up the monotony of clever, serious men at each other’s throats.  Emily is a breath of fresh air in her scenes, but unfortunately she spends most of the film trapped inside a wooden coffin.  A custom soundtrack also would have gone a long way towards lending a unique identity to the film or lightening the mood, much how the Sherlock Holmes films are benefited by an original score.

The principle problem, as with all failed stories, is a lack of motivation.  That is what creates engaging stories: well-formed characters with something at stake in the outcome of the tale.  Why does the killer decide to recreate the murders in Poe’s stories?  I won’t spoil who the killer turns out to be, but his reasoning is less than satisfactory.  He even utters the line, “I think I went a little crazy,” which is of course absurd, as crazy people are not aware of their insanity.  In the end, The Raven isn’t funny, it isn’t scary, and it isn’t all that interesting.  How can a fictional account of a man’s life seem less interesting than his actual life appeared to be?  Mostly, it’s just two hours of blah.  And with all the possibilities laid out from such a fascinating premise, it’s a real bummer how shallow the film really is.  Most damaging is that if this film should accomplish one thing, it should inspire the viewer to go check out Poe’s infamous stories, but alas, owing to the ambivalent nature of the film, I think most people will not be so inclined.  Which is a shame.