Blu-ray Review: John Cusack Can’t Save Derivative Formula of ‘The Raven’

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CHICAGO – John Cusack is an enormously likable actor, and for the first third of James McTeigue’s period thriller, he holds audience interest long enough to inspire hope for a better two thirds. Alas, the film crash lands soon after that, as McTeigue proves to have little to no interest in his central subject, one of the greatest writers in the history of literature.

Edgar Allan Poe’s tormented life as an orphaned genius turned struggling literary critic would make fine subject matter for a first-rate feature, and it’s clear that the intentions behind “The Raven” were promising enough. By creating a fictional narrative that forces Poe to deconstruct his own psychology in order to solve a string of ghastly crimes, screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare aimed to explore the writer’s persona by trapping him in one of his own dark tales. Unfortunately, Livingston and Shakespeare made the fatal error of relying on predictable clichés that reek of commercial calculation. Blu-ray Rating: 1.5/5.0
Blu-ray Rating: 1.5/5.0

Cusack plays Poe as a sharp-tongued, tirelessly snarky egomaniac not all that far removed from Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes. There’s an amusing early scene where he compliments a talentless woman (the ever-underutilized Pam Ferris) on her sentimental poem by projecting his own lofty ideas onto her simplistic lines. He’s a rogue charmer, but as soon as the dreary plot clicks into gear, all semblance of charm or fun evaporates. Poe learns that an anonymous serial killer is offing victims in a style inspired by his own hit stories, such as “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Thus, the writer is recruited to track down the killer with the help of a detective (Luke Evans), who essentially functions as Jude Law’s Watson sans the charisma. This ungainly hybrid of the “Se7en” and “Sherlock Holmes” formulas is entirely lacking in the atmospheric detail and inventive gruesomeness that made Poe’s work such a kick. Instead of ending the film in the delicious darkness and gloom of the final stanza in Poe’s timeless “Raven” poem (“…nevermore!”), McTeigue decides to end with a fist-pumping act of gunplay. Just because the film has a bunch of Poe references doesn’t mean it is making any solid attempt at capturing his spirit.

The Raven was released on Blu-ray and DVD on October 9th, 2012.
The Raven was released on Blu-ray and DVD on October 9th, 2012.
Photo credit: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment

Perhaps the most memorable singular image of the film is that of a despised literary critic having his intestines slashed by a giant pendulum (the gore effects are cartoonish at best). After his corpse is found, characters identify the deceased man’s profession before describing it with the offhanded line, “You know, easy stuff.” Perhaps this was Livingston and Shakespeare’s way of getting comical revenge on critics who panned their past work. It’s a pity that their latest work will doubtfully inspire higher praise, since it appears less interested in provocative ideas and ghoulish horrors than it is in by-the-numbers crime scene investigations. You know, easy stuff.

“The Raven” is presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio), accompanied by English and Spanish subtitles and includes Blu-ray, DVD and digital copies of the film. McTeigue is joined on an audio commentary track by producers Mark D. Evans, Trevor Macy and Aaron Ryder, who discuss the film’s shooting locations in Hungary and Serbia. Best among the repetitive slew of featurettes is a profile on Poe himself, and his extraordinary life story that still has yet to be given its rightful due onscreen.

‘The Raven’ is released by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment and stars John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve, Brendan Gleeson and Kevin McNally. It was written by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare and directed by James McTeigue. It was released on October 9th, 2012. It is rated R. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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