Director: James McTeigue
Length: 1h 51m
Synopsis: The year is 1849 in Baltimore, Maryland. A mysterious madman has begun killing people in the same fashions as those which are described in the various works of famed writer Edgar Allan Poe (Cusack), who has been recruited by a Detective Fields (Evans) to help with the investigation. Already pressured by the pace at which the killer is creating new victims, Poe and the police are distressed even further when a young aristocrat named Emily (Eve), who is Poe’s secret fiancée, finds herself abducted by the fanatical maniac. The psycho then challenges Poe and the police to follow the clues he leaves at each new crime and find Emily before it’s too late. Along the chase Poe must deal with confronting the realizations of his grisly stories, and doing so only adds to the toll of having to face the possibility of losing yet another woman he loves.
Analysis: There is much to be found while watching The Raven that is worth getting excited about, and perhaps nothing about it will be considered more exciting than the fact that it was made with adult viewers mostly in mind. By this I don’t mean to suggest that there is an “adult” helping of gore and/or foul language, though small portions of both are offered for a presumed appetite for them. Rather, what is truly adult about the film is the high-brow use of intelligent and oft-baroque dialogue, and a pace that doesn’t slow down for stragglers. Mind you, of course, nothing you’ll witness will rival any work of Poe’s, but anymore one must relish a Hollywood release that assumes a reading level above the ninth grade and an at least average IQ. The structure of the mystery itself is nothing unique – follow the clues to a previously unforeseeable end – but it is built competently enough so as to keep us engaged throughout. Those who pay attention will be able to appreciate the methodical progression from one clue to the next, though the resolution they build up to is nothing on par with, say, The Usual Suspects. It’s elaborate on the level of being clever, but not brilliant. Aside from this, if anachronisms drive you up a wall you might want to steer clear. To expect more from the film is not unreasonable on principle, but in the movie wasteland that is each month of April it’s considerably better than we would have any reason to anticipate.
The premise of the story pits Edgar Allen Poe’s woeful yet razor-sharp mind against a killer’s that is blunt only by comparison. The thread connecting the two, though, is the latter’s adoration of the former, which of course shows most prominently in the murderous methods he mimics. It is difficult to fully describe their relationship without spoiling certain metaphors and themes, but to appease our intrigue let us instead consider what works to effectively separate the two. Poe’s mind has proven capable of conjuring the macabre, but we understand that this is at least partly because his personal misfortunes (ex., his former love died in his arms) have shrouded his life in sorrow. Death has become such a familiar visitor to him that its blackness rarely escapes his perceptions. Conversely, the killer not only (presumably) perceives that same darkness but finds the prospect of supplementing it not worth the bother of further consideration. What we can infer from this alone, and what Poe’s affections for Emily further prove, is that the greatest distinction between the two is a value of life. While Poe revels in depraved notions on a poetic plane, the killer gives no second thought to transitioning that plane into reality. Despite his obsessions, Poe is an antagonist of death who resigns it to mere words on paper. The killer, meanwhile, is no such antagonist, but in fact an embodiment. For Poe, death robs the world of what is good, and the killer threatens to be the latest thief.
The most obvious question brought up by the premise of The Raven is that about whether violence in art can in fact inspire violence in real life. Such a controversial topic would have been sidestepped had the writing been of lesser quality; being that the story’s engagement with it isn’t necessarily essential to the character arch of Poe himself (what there is of it); but it is thankfully addressed explicitly here. Poe voices regret and guilt for his writings leading to such gruesome consequences, but he – and by extension the movie – eventually brushes aside such culpability in favor of passing it on to the person directly responsible. This is continuing a trend long-since held by Hollywood in defense of continuing accusations which claim that depictions of violence instill violent tendencies in viewers. (The backlash of the Columbine tragedy has become perhaps the most famous example of this.) The horror genre has understandably done the most to deny such responsibility, with self-aware movies like Scream pointing the finger at insanity induced by life’s everyday hardships. The Raven likewise points the finger at insanity, but conveys the kind necessary to commit such heinous crimes as those it depicts as mere social dysfunction. Appropriately, insanity is a motif that spans most of Poe’s anthology, from The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) to The Black Cat (1843), to The Tell-Tale Heart (1843), to his seminal poem The Raven (1845). In each of these, insanity is brought on by extreme sorrow of one kind or another, suggesting that Poe believed true madness stemmed from this source. I won’t say where the killer’s insanity originates, but it certainly doesn’t appear to be sorrow. Such a connection to Poe’s work would have given the story some much needed dimension. But as it stands without it, this version of The Raven is still worth a casual read.