So, The Raven isn’t very good. It takes a randomly selective reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and a few bits of triviata from his life and grafts those onto a by-the-numbers serial killer narrative in which the Poe character, the ostensible lead, is completely superfluous.
[Read more. Spoiler, of course.]
Spoilers for the film.
That superfluity could have been fixed, but the serial killer angle is unsolvable, and like the locked-room mystery that Poe pioneered in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” it’s a conceit that’s run its course as a fictional device.
There are a few examples of serial killer stories that have worked. The Silence of the Lambs is both an excellent book (as is Thomas Harris’ earlier Red Dragon) and movie, presenting a credible and compelling procedural, though it presented a massive difficulty curve for any imitators. David Fincher’s Se7en got around that issue by presenting its serial killing as less a naturalistic procedural than an elaborate moral parable. Unfortunately, nearly every serial killer movie since (to say nothing of serial killers on TV) seems to have only retained one aspect of Se7en—one that’s based in a massively reductive read on psychopathology, though one very convenient for bad serial killer stories—of the killer leaving the detective(s) a trail of clues right to his door, because he “wants to be caught” or some such.
The killer in The Raven goes to extremely elaborate means to recreate murders from Edgar Allan Poe stories, and further to do so in Poe’s own city of Baltimore, in 1849, shortly before Poe’s death. For some odd reason, even though the killer is drawing from an already extant body of work, the police enlist Poe to take part in the investigation, though they could just as easily have left Poe—here played by John Cusack as a reckless, deeply unpleasant drunk who never says in one word what he could say in ten—out of it and focused on finding the killer. Eventually the killer kidnaps Poe’s fiancee (Alice Eve, looking eerily like Kristen Stewart at times), at which point the lead detective (a competent if resolutely bland Luke Evans) lets Poe run around drunk with a loaded gun.
At one point, there’s a reference to criticism being “the easy stuff.” While I could get all bent out of shape about that being untrue and how anyone who thinks criticism is easy either hasn’t done it or is doing it wrong, The Raven has bigger problems that are actually related to the way the line is tossed off rather than what it actually means. All of the allusions to Poe’s life and work in The Raven are made in a similarly glib fashion. Its attitude toward Poe’s stories and poetry is “Hey! Edgar Allan Poe! Awesome!” Well, yes. But don’t tell us, show us why. The Raven spends an inordinate amount of time lecturing about how great Edgar Allan Poe is, and comes complete with a lot of heavy handed jokes about Longfellow and a weirdly unconvincing rote love story.
The biggest problem with the movie is the seeming indifference of its makers. The cast (Cusack in particular) acts up a storm, but are forced to speak ponderously expository gobbledegook dialogue and manufacture emotions that the script doesn’t provide. The love story is a particularly egregious misfire. Given that the movie tells us in the opening title card that what we are about to see is the last few days of Edgar Allan Poe’s life, and that shortly after we see him in love and proposing marriage, it’s puzzling and unfortunate that that love story has no resonance whatsoever, other than the kidnapped fiancee being a MacGuffin that Poe and the police need to rescue from the killer.
It’s really a shame that The Raven is as bad (and boring) as it is, because it could have been a great Poe geek-out with a half-competent script and a director who was awake. But, alas, some things are not meant to be. Fortunately Poe’s work is fairly easy to find and read, and there are still those excellent Roger Corman movies of “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” and so forth. The Raven is not of that caliber, and isn’t even “so bad it’s good,” it’s just a dreary mess.