'The Raven' is macabre and muddled, quoth the critics
"The Raven," a new mystery thriller that imagines Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) helping police solve a series of murders inspired by his stories, follows in the footsteps of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" and Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" movies, combining 19th century literary figures and Hollywood flair. Alas, many movie critics have found the result scattered and silly.
In a mixed review, The Times' Betsy Sharkey calls the film "more pulp fiction than macabre masterpiece," though she does concede that it has "a nifty idea" at its center. What's lacking most, Sharkey says, "is the tightly constructed tension-building that Poe did so unsettlingly and inventively well." On the plus side, Luke Evans is "excellent" as the detective who teams up with Poe, and style points are awarded to cinematographer Danny Ruhlmann and costume designer Carlo Poggioli.
Ty Burr, of the Boston Globe, is less ambivalent, writing that "The Raven" "might qualify as literary desecration if it weren't so silly." Director James McTeigue ("V for Vendetta") brings "dark style" and "galloping speed," Burr says, "neither of which disguise the fact that the movie often doesn’t make a lick of sense." Burr adds that the dialogue (by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare) and Cusack's performance are overly serious in a film that would have done better to "lighten up and admit it was trash."
The San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle gives a mixed review, writing, "The story has its moments, and yet there is something about this tale … that doesn't completely satisfy." Though "The Raven" isn't "a particularly good picture," LaSalle says, there is appeal to be found in "Cusack's bristling intelligence," "the occasional wit of the screenplay" and "the fascination of imagining we're seeing this man [Poe] who gave so much and got so little.
The New York Times' A.O. Scott says the film offers a bit of "geeky pleasure," and that "the fannish obsessiveness that animates 'The Raven' is its most appealing attribute." But although "the film's heart is in the right place," the execution falters. "Cusack works himself into a lather trying to reconcile the contradictory parts of an incoherent character," and the film is equally disjointed in trying to combine too many genres (romance, humor, mystery, horror). "The result is a mess," Scott says.
In Variety, Leslie Felperin deems "The Raven" a "squawking, silly picture that never takes flight." It doesn't have "the most cinematic or original story," Felperin writes, and "the standard-issue serial-killer cliches offered up here aren't much more interesting." Felperin does agree with Sharkey, though, that "at least the costumes are fab."
Though far from issuing a ringing endorsement, the New York Post's Lou Lumenick does pen one of the film's more positive reviews. Cusack, he says, "knows how to rock a cape" and offers a splendid impersonation of Poe, and he and McTeigue deliver "good pulpy fun."
In the end it would seem that "The Raven" isn't a full-fledged turkey, but it also isn't close to living up to Poe's classic tales.
— Oliver Gettell
Photo: Alice Eve and John Cusack in "The Raven." Credit: Larry Horricks / Relativity Media