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Movie Review: The Raven (2012)

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The Raven is an atmospheric, moody fantasy on the last days of Edgar Allan Poe, in which John Cusack captures the spirit of never-ending sadness, sparkling genius and dejected curiosity for all things horrific of the most mysterious writer of the 19th century.

The Raven opens with a black screen screaming out a blatant lie: the movie pretends to be a biopic (nothing is known about the last days of the poet yada yada yada). To my surprise, in the last week I have read in some user comments about an excellent ‘adaptation of a classic’. (What classic? What adaptation?) This is the real horror of The Raven circa 2012 – that to many viewers this will be their only acquaintance with Poe, a tale of ‘how it really was’. Spoiler alert: The Raven is not a biopic. The Raven is not an adaptation. The Raven is not a classic. It’s pure fiction, fiction based on other fiction, kind of like a dream within a dream, only with a more tangible objective to make an impact at the box office. The Raven is nothing more.

So, according to fake biopic The Raven 2012, Poe (John Cusack) is a failed writer who can’t get a drink at the bar because editor Henry Maddox (Kevin McNally) won’t publish him over some douchebag Longfellow. He is shaking with alcoholism and screams at people for calling him ‘poor’ as he yells ‘I am Poe, Poe, Poe’. He plays with human hearts in his free time, then feeds them to his pet racoon. He has a cute lover (erotic Alice Eve) whose father is a jerk (Brendan Gleeson, good as always), refusing to shut down a grand ball because of some idiotic killer on the loose.

Poe is arrested as a suspect in a seemingly unsolvable murder case with Inspector Emmett Fields (Luke Evans, interesting) thinking Poe did it because it copies one of his stories word by word (nice going, Inspector). Next a critic Griswold (John Warnaby) dies, his last words being ‘But I’m only a critic!’ – and all hell breaks loose. There are chases and shooting scenes, cut-off body parts, and classic whodunit twists. The ending may come as a surprise to some; a disappointment to others. I am staying mum.

Director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) and writers Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare present a Poe that is tame and almost pitiable, with his penchant for opium and syphilis symptoms nowhere in sight. Period detail is not much of concern here but not in a good “Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes” kind of way. Every reviewer will of course have to write how the term ‘serial killer’ would not appear until the 1970s, and so will I. This is not a post-modernist hip ‘thang’, it’s just a fuck-up, and should never happen in serious cinema.

John Cusack, however, manages to project that quiet madness that elicits out of every pore of a person who’s lost a loved one in a senseless, futile, absurd battle against death itself. The painful passing of his wife has laid a shadow on his face, and with every new murder, this shadow grows bigger and bigger, a cloud hovering over the people he loves. The movie is filled with this doomed sadness, and that’s a compliment.

The Raven is also entertaining, never boring. The rock score of Lucas Vidal (Vanishing on 7th Street) matched the spirit of Baltimore at night – spooky and shadowy. The public was dead silent, waiting for the next shot anxiously while dreading it all the same. The Raven has a bit of Saw, Seven, and Silence of the Lambs in it. I don’t know if the gory scenes were gory enough for 2012 – my eyes shut tight and refused to open until those were over, so I can’t even spoil anything for anyone.

For me, an old school writer and critic who reread the poem “The Raven” before I went to the theatre, it was interesting to see whether the spirit of it, the dread and horror of that cold night described in it, would be translated to the movie in any way. I watched out for ravens in this murder thriller – eating a kitten, dancing on the face of a dead prostitute, dying with their mouths agape, or staring down at Poe, letting out his last breath into the fog of the morning. They did nothing to me; but the dread did come out, not in the quiet tapping on the window, but in the stifled breaths of Emily, her dirt sprinkled chest going up and down in short, desperate breaths for life.

I came in ready to hate The Raven and came out liking it (exactly in the sense of a Facebook ‘like’ – impersonal and mechanic). It’s exactly the case of my mind pleading to hate it and my heart melting under the pressure of its overbearing melancholy; we’ve all been there; without it half of the population of the Earth would never have been born.

There were also a couple of questions I asked myself when I walked out: Are writers responsible for what they write? Do you have to sell your soul for a work of art? Is this type of scenario just an interactive reader-writer co-creation process at its extreme?

“The Raven”, a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1845, was written in a meticulous struggle to produce a creation that would appeal both to the readers and the critics. The Raven, a movie by James McTeigue, screened in 2012, makes no such pretences. It’s just a money grabber. It does nothing to look into the soul of the poet it allegedly portrays.

Verdict: The horror is never enough for a tale with the father of horror at its core. The Raven will probably make you reread The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Pit and the Pendulum, which is a good thing. You will also learn how much Poe earned for writing “The Raven”, which almost made me cry.

Maybe Poe circa 2012 would download Jessy J’s ‘Pricetag’ onto his scratched and tattered iPad – as a consolation. I can see him clearly near the window, with ‘It’s not about the money’ screaming in his ears. He doesn’t hear the soft tapping at the window. But it’s there, always there. The raven.

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About Sviatlana Piatakova