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The Raven (2012)

Sherlock Poems

I had zero interest in seeing The Raven after watching its trailer. Judging by the film's abysmal seventh-place opening weekend, neither did America. But after a quick bit of Facebook polling, I slunk off to the theatre, happy to not be saddled with another two-hour Judd Apatow-produced romantic comedy, but deeply concerned about the weirdly cast Sherlock Holmes knock-off that awaited me.

Once again, shame on me for passing judgment! While not consistently suspenseful, scary, or even classically good, this is one of the most compelling movies I've seen this year.*

There's no point in commenting on the plot, since everything except the killer's identity is revealed in the previews. But for those of you who wouldn't know The Raven from Raven-Symoné, here's the run-down:

In the last weeks of Edgar Allen Poe's (John Cusack) life, he becomes a suspect in a series of grisly Baltimore murders inspired by his greatest works. The local head detective, Fields (Luke Evans, effectively channeling Michael Shannon in Boardwalk Empire) recruits the drunken, disgraced poet to help him unravel clues and, eventually, rescue Poe's would-be high-society girlfriend, Emily (Alice Eve). Complicating their investigation is Emily's disapproving father (Brendan Gleeson) and an ever-dwindling list of possible killers.

Yes, this is basically Se7en, gussied up in the big-budget slum-chic of Guy Ritchie's blockbuster Holmes adaptation. But the melancholy is nicely tempered with humor and bizarre tweaks to genre convention, which make the film a ride instead of just a procedural. I was unprepared for Cusack's take on Poe, having been spoiled by Jeffrey Combs' incredible, dour (but not incredibly dour) performance in the Masters of Horror episode, "The Black Cat". Poe 2.0 is a wacky cross between Hunter S. Thompson and Lloyd Dobler, screaming at local bar patrons for having no idea who he is one minute, and then melting into the embrace of the girl he believes is doomed for loving him the next.

There's a profound lack of twisted, psychedelic imagery at play here, which I appreciate to no end. It would have been easy for director James McTeigue and writers Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare to go the Tim Burton route, filling The Raven with all sorts of dark, animated peeks into Poe's mind. But the filmmakers go gothic without going GothicTM , opening up the standard, bloody whodunnit to a world of grim, comic possibilities and the kind of depraved views on love that only manic depressives can truly understand.

And, as bromances go, Fields and Poe soar past buddy-cop formula into grossly unexplored territory. Both men are on different planets, and though they kind of come to understand one another, the film doesn't end with a phony, "let's go get 'em" climax and manly, pre-beers hug. No, the writers make them distinct figures with different approaches to life that, ultimately, serve a greater purpose without fully gelling. Sorry to be so cryptic, but the less you know about the movie's resolution the better.

And what a resolution! The Raven's villain is a casualty of Roger Ebert's Law of the Economy of Characters--meaning that, if you care to do the math, the process of cast member deduction will eventually lead you to the hidden killer. The filmmakers know this, as do we, and they make the reveal deceptively spectacular to compensate. The scene in which Poe must confront a madman he helped create reminded me of the Joker's interrogation scene from The Dark Knight--minus the weird, Cagney-esque cackling. Some have expressed dissatisfaction with the villain's motive, but the simplicity and pathetic ridiculousness behind the crimes make their execution more awe-inspiring and more chilling. It also lends realism to a story that, thanks to decades of similarly constructed horror movies, has become too far-fetched and predictable.

I'd be remiss in not giving a brief shout-out to Eve as the damsel in distress. While her early scenes are nothing to write home about, she plays a desperate woman in captivity very well. She's sympathetic without being a shrieking pity object and bold without becoming Ellen Ripley. By film's end, I began to wonder if her time trapped under a floorboard had imbued her with a touch of madness.

I keep going back to 2009's Sherlock Holmes, a movie I loathed. Though McTeigue is working with similar material here, I much prefer his take. Instead of hitting the audience over the head with (too much) fancy camera moves and the manufactured, quirky pseudo-brilliance of a lead actor on auto pilot, The Raven takes great pains to give us a well-rounded, literate hero whose internal struggles are even more rousing than the murder mystery that has so rudely inconvenienced him. The film may leave average horror fans weak and weary, but I left the theatre elated and eager to write.

*Does anyone else smell a blu-ray blurb?