Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Raven (2012)

As with his debut film, V for Vendetta (2006), director James McTeigue seems attracted to projects which offer highly stylized and factually loose interpretations of noted historical figures, situated amongst settings which exude postmodern pastiche. In The Raven (2012), John Cusack plays the legendary American author and poet Edgar Allen Poe who discovers that a serial killer is loose in Baltimore, and who is using excerpts from his body of work as the muse to a series of grisly killings. Although the film is set in 18th Century America, one feels as though the entire narrative exists within a purely imaginary space as much rooted in the generic literary iconography of Gothic America as in any actual historical research on the time and place. Is historical fidelity the main goal of the film? Should it be? No, and no. But, on a visceral level, such creative superficiality speaks to a larger shallow incoherence which mars the film. The Raven seems to be using a hodgepodge of classic Poe references—sure to go over the heads of the other 90% of non-Literature majors in the audience—as a means to lend a certain aura of prestige to an otherwise lifeless genre tale.

The Raven ambitiously seeks to fill that unexplored niche of the “torture porn” market which caters to the literary crowd, though one is doubtful that those die-hard academics scattered in English departments across the country will find much of value in the film either. The film is ultimately as condescending and it is celebratory in its treatment of Poe’s final days. On the plus side, Luke Evans’ performance as the inspector who (predictably) at first suspects Poe’s involvement in the crimes only to eventually side with him continues to suggest a career on the way up. However, his character’s function in the end seems to serve little purpose beyond the closure offered in a tacked-on ending. Cusack’s performance, meanwhile, is rather uneven; he starts out with a good faith effort to channel the voice and mannerisms we might attribute to Poe, but halfway through the movie seems to abandon the effort, descending into bouts of general yelling not unlike the second half of the much sharper Room 1408 (2007).

Is The Raven a terrible film? No, especially when placed within the larger context of a B-movie cinematic legacy filled with other cheesy Poe “adaptations”—dating back to the days of Roger Corman—with little interest in the figure’s actual biography or body of work. Again, it’s not fair to judge the film against such criteria; yet, the fascinating challenge for future filmmakers would be precisely to tell an engaging story within the confines of such facts without resorting to obvious genre clich├ęs, or hiding behind historical indifference in the name of creative liberty. The latter actually makes one’s job more, not less, challenging. By reducing Poe’s (fictionalized) final days to the backdrop of a generic serial killer story, the filmmakers certainly give themselves more narrative leeway, but the end result must be judged against that wider range of creative possibility—where it does not fare too well.

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