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The Raven (2012) – film review

January 23, 2014

THE RAVEN

Last days of Poe.

john cusack - the raven 2012

A Spanish-American co-production. Directed by James McTeigue. Written by Hannah Shakespeare and Ben Livingston. Starring: John Cusack, Alice Eve, Luke Evans and Brendan Gleeson. Year of release: 2012. Running time: 110 mins.

It is October 7th, 1849 and celebrated down-on-his-luck writer of the macabre Edgar Allan Poe, having vanished for three days, is found in Baltimore in a delirious state, babbling incoherently. This is historical fact. What this film The Raven attempts to do is fill in this missing time by supposing Poe’s involvement in a police hunt for a serial killer responsible for a series of gruesome murders; seemingly inspired by the works of Poe himself.

(Before I continue, I should perhaps make mention that director James McTeigue     and I were classmates back in film school at CSU and while I do indeed hold James’ substantial achievements in high regard – I will try not to let this sway my opinion too much.)

Despite lifting its title from Poe’s most famous poem, The Raven is by no means a straight retelling of the source – nor is it a remake of Roger Corman’s 1963 movie of the same name. This film is actually closer to David Fincher’s Se7en than anything previously associated with Poe. The Raven marks James McTeigue’s first directing gig independent of involvement with his close friends and colleagues Lana and Andy Wachowski (whom he first met on the set of the original The Matrix as first assistant director, before helming the celebrated Allan Moore adaptation V For Vendetta) – and it’s nice to see him finessing his own visual aesthetic. James has already proven himself to be a more than capable director of action sequences (Ninja Assassin) and The Raven is clearly an opportunity for him to focus on performance and character. The scenes between Poe and Detective Fields (played by Luke Evans) are particularly well-blocked and paced; creating an effective and believable chemistry between the two. As a result of these nuanced and low-key performances, this film seems less operatic than his previous efforts.

A period thriller set in Baltimore in 1849, The Raven resembles the movie Se7en in many ways – especially in the way the villian attempts to manipulate the protagonist as part of a greater plan by including Poe’s love interest in the proceedings. Structurally-speaking, the film is well-paced and the various twists and turns had     me guessing the killer’s identity right to the very end. Several of Poe’s stories are referenced including ‘Murders In The Rue Morgue’, ‘The Masque Of The Red Death’, ‘A Premature Burial’ and ‘The Pit And The Pendulum’. The gruesome recreation of     the swinging blade from ‘The Pit And The Pendulum’ is nicely staged and packs a visceral punch which is quite shocking.

As written by screenwriters Hannah Shakespeare and Ben Livingston, Poe is portrayed as a somewhat heroic figure and while suitably dashing (and sporting           a snazzy goatee) – John Cusack bares little resemblence to the actual man; a depressive alcoholic who married his thirteen-year-old cousin – an unsavory fact     which is never alluded to for obvious reasons. Alice Eve (Star Trek Into Darkness) is adequate here as Poe’s love interest, Emily. Although her contempory Californian good looks (despite Eve herself being English) seem strangely at odds with the rest of the cast.

alice-eve-as-emily-in-the-raven-2012

The movie has been criticised by some nit-picking ‘trainspotters’ as containing several glaring anachronisms (such as the use of the word ‘okay’ in lines of dialogue and a newspaper headline emblazoned with the term ‘serial killer’ – a phrase which wasn’t coined until the 1970’s) – but as James reveals on the commentary track: these things were quite intentional in order to give the period setting a somewhat modern sensibility – to make it more relatable for a 21st Century audience. Whether or not the viewer agrees with this approach, the issue isn’t nearly enough to affect one’s enjoyment of the overall piece. This idea of giving the movie a modern sensibility, by the way, is also one of the reasons why composer Lucas Vidal (Fast     & Furious 6) was instructed to provide a semi-electronic score for the film – a terrific score which adds much to the driving momentum of some of the more exciting action set pieces. And the film is beautifully edited by former music video editor Niven Howie (Dawn Of The Dead, Death Race, The Hitchiker’s Guide To the Galaxy).

The shadowy mood-filled cinematography by Aussie lenser Danny Ruhlmann, together with Roger Ford’s intricate production design, lends an authenticity to the period setting. The cobbled streets of Belgrade and Budapest do well to evoke the gas-lit period setting of Baltimore in the mid 19th Century. And the period costumes by Italian designer Carlo Poggioli (The Brothers Grimm) are beautifully realized – being particularly notable during the ‘Masque Of The Red Death’ sequence which involves many exquisitely detailed masks worn by the ball’s various attendees.

Film Title: The Raven

While it would be almost impossible to top his own highly-regarded and sociopolitically subversive debut – the near flawless V For Vendetta, James McTeigue’s third feature The Raven is certainly an improvement over his previous outing Ninja Assassin – which was, for me at least, somewhat of a disappointment. The Raven is a solid period thriller with handsome production values and an intriguing premise which will hopefully lead to larger scale opportunities for this highly-capable genre director. I for one certainly look forward to his next film with keen anticipation.

Viewed on Blu-ray.

3.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4  – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

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