Partly for my own enlightenment, and partly because today’s movie was coming out, I recently bought and read a compilation of the poems and short stories of Edgar Allen Poe. And at the risk of inviting disparaging comments, I wasn’t impressed.
Don’t get me wrong, the man was a master poet. In all of his works, Poe displayed a great flair for imagery and a mastery of the English language. His poems are all phenomenal, none more so than his rightfully immortal masterpiece, “The Raven.” However, I’m of the opinion that while Poe was a great poet, he was overall a subpar storyteller. “The Cask of Amontillado” was a wonderful story wonderfully told, ditto for “The Pit and the Pendulum,” but his other short stories were borderline impenetrable and padded beyond tolerance.
My favorite cases in point are “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter,” both of which star C. Auguste Dupin. Poe’s detective had a uniquely logical and analytical approach to solving crime, in such a way that it made him a direct predecessor to Sherlock Holmes. Having read the exploits of both literary detectives, it’s my opinion that even the least of Holmes’ mysteries was more clearly explained, more creative, more entertaining, and cast with stronger characters than either of the two aforementioned Dupin stories.
And now the shoe is on the other foot, as Sherlock Holmes served as a direct predecessor to The Raven, a film about the works of Edgar Allen Poe. The result is not only a transparent ploy to leech off the box-office success of a Robert Downey Jr. franchise, but also an inferior movie.
Right from the very beginning, the film presents camera movements, colors, use of shadows and fog, and production design that all look nearly identical to the 2009 Holmes film. That last part is especially baffling. Though I’m no historian, I imagine that turn-of-the-century London would not have looked so much like Baltimore did in the mid-1800s.
And all of that is before we first see John Cusack, who portrays Edgar Allen Poe as a fast-talking alcoholic genius with a condescending attitude that alienates him from everyone. Gee, does that sound familiar?!
Where this film diverges from the previous one is in the music, which doesn’t have one-tenth the energy or the creativity of Hans Zimmer’s Oscar-nominated score. The film also has a has a different approach to action sequences, as James McTeigue uses none of the speed-ramping in Guy Ritchie’s picture (which is rather surprising, as McTeigue is a former protege to the Wachowski siblings). Instead, the film often shows things flying toward the camera, implying that this was meant to be another passenger on the 3D bandwagon. Yet there isn’t a 3D option for this film, implying that during post-production, someone with two brain cells to rub together figured out that a film this dark would be unwatchable through 3D lenses. Of course, this also means that the shots of things flying toward the camera are now completely worthless, but hey, it’s the lesser of two evils.
Anyway, the premise: Some madman has been committing murders and modeling the crimes after Poe’s work. At the end of the first act, the culprit challenges Poe to solve the crimes, capturing Poe’s love interest for added incentive. Let’s talk about that love interest for a moment.
I once heard of a film analysis method called “The Treasure Test.” The test is to replace some supporting character or love interest in a film with a bag of gold, a priceless stone, or some other precious object. Imagine that a character was incapable of independent thought or action, unable to interact with the other characters except to be fought over and passed between them. The character of Emily Hamilton fails this test spectacularly, as she could have been replaced with such a treasure and the differences to overall narrative would be practically nil.
It also doesn’t help that Emily is played by Alice Eve. Though Eve is admittedly attractive enough for the role, she doesn’t have the talent to make Emily more than a cardboard cutout, and her chemistry with Cusack is nonexistent. As a result, the film’s romance arc — and thus, the entire motivation for our main character — is DOA. Adding insult to injury, Brendan Gleeson appears as Emily’s father, wasting his ample talents on a thankless and useless role.
Still, it’s not like the cast is all bad. The film’s resident detective was poorly written at times, but he was still very competent and Luke Evans played him surprisingly well. Also, I have to admit that John Cusack earns a few props here. Yes, his performance is basically just an imitation of Robert Downey Jr., but at least it’s a very good imitation. Additionally, it’s hard to blame the filmmakers for saddling Poe with erratic behavior and alcoholism, since Poe was afflicted with both in his declining years. Which brings me to the plot holes.
The film opens with a title card, saying that Poe was found in a state of near death on October of 1849. He was delirious at the time, Poe’s cause of death was never confirmed, and Poe’s whereabouts in the days before remain entirely unknown. All of this, strangely enough, is absolutely true. But by bringing this information up at the very outset, and by showing us glimpses of Poe’s death before getting to the movie proper, the movie implies that it’s showing us the final days of Edgar Allen Poe. All well and good.
But then the film gets going. Poe gets involved with a police investigation. People get killed. Houses are burned down. Baltimore’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens go to a ball that gets crashed in spectacular fashion (the set design and costume design in that scene look fabulous, by the way). A whole ton of other stuff happens with tons of witnesses nearby, and we see most of these happenings get chronicled in newspapers. This begs the question of why we know so little about the circumstances of Poe’s deaths when so much information about his activities and movements was floating around.
Even worse, the movie shows events unfolding that would have made the real sequence of events completely impossible. Let me give you an example: In real life, Poe’s literary executor was a critic named Rufus Griswold. Nobody’s entirely sure how this came to be, though, since Griswold was a bitter enemy of Poe’s. Even after Poe was dead, Griswold continued to disparage his legacy. In the movie, Rufus Griswold dies in the first thirty minutes.
Now, you might say that this is a work of fiction. Of course these events didn’t really happen. Fine. But we’re told up front that this work of fiction is built on fact. The implication is that all of these fantastic things actually happened. I can pretend that’s the case so long as the film is running, but when the movie shows things that blatantly contradict recorded historical facts and the actual events as we know them, then that really fucks with suspension of disbelief.
Then there’s the matter of the ending, which is probably the most important part of any mystery. It’s so very easy for the case’s solution to be a total disappointment in the face of so much build-up, so guess what happens here. But by far the bigger problem is that the filmmakers essentially painted themselves into a corner with this story. The premise dictates that Poe has to die alone, delirious, abandoned on a Baltimore street, with the name of “Reynolds” on his lips. No matter what happens, we have to get to that point. The obvious method would be to create an ending in which Poe dies and the bad guy gets away, but God forbid that this multi-million dollar action spectacular have such a challenging ending. So instead, the film gets a happy ending that comes with a heaping pile of bullshit out of left field. There was probably a third option in there somewhere, but if you think the filmmakers were clever enough to find it then you haven’t been paying attention.
It’s obvious that a lot of talent went into The Raven, and at least one person behind the lens clearly had a great affinity for Poe’s work. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that there’s a great story in the mysterious death of Edgar Allen Poe, but nobody in this production — with the arguable exceptions of John Cusack and Luke Evans — had the talent, the intelligence, or the creativity to tell it. Instead, we wound up with a pathetic movie which deserves to be treated like the Sherlock Holmes (2009) knockoff that it is.