Over the years it’s become easy to figure out which movies John Cusack does for the pleasure and fulfillment of being an actor and which ones he does for the paycheck. James McTeigue’s The Raven clearly falls in the latter category, as it’s impossible to believe that an actor as smart and talented as Cusack would actually be passionate about such an awful movie.
The story begins when the police discover the murdered bodies of a woman and her young daughter – the mother’s throat slit from ear to ear with a razor and the girl’s body shoved up the chimney. To one of the detectives (Luke Evans), the scene is familiar: it’s taken directly from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. After bringing in the writer (Cusack) for questioning, the police find another body killed in the fashion of “The Pit and the Pendulum”. Bringing along Poe as a consultant, they work to try and hunt the serial killer down, but things get personal when Poe’s girlfriend (Alice Eve) is kidnapped and the author must race against the clock to find her.
Doing his best impression of Nicolas Cage, John Cusack spends the entirety of The Raven chewing on the scenery, and it’s actually hard to watch. There’s hardly a single line of his that isn’t shouted, whether he’s in a bar trying to win himself a free drink by proving his notoriety or in his editor’s office finding out that one of his critiques hasn’t been published. In addition to being laughable, it actually winds up hurting the movie when it tries to create any kind of tension. Knowing how much Poe loves to scream at the top of his lungs, it’s hard to take him seriously, even when he’s shouting his beloved’s name trying to find where she has been kidnapped to.
Stylistically, everything about the film feels exaggerated and overdone. Even when it adds nothing to the story or tone, The Raven’s violence is bloody and unyielding. In the “Pit and the Pendulum” scene, for example, McTeigue doesn’t choose to capitalize on the incredible tension and fear that Poe originally imagined when thinking about a giant swinging blade slowly lowering towards a man’s strapped down body. Instead, it falls quickly and we watch as it saws through the victim’s body multiple times for no apparent reason other than violence for violence’s sake. The movie imagines itself as dark and edgy, but it comes across as being stupid and gratuitous.
The script, written by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, is an utter disaster. It’s not hard to appreciate the idea behind the story – Poe is one of the greatest writers who ever lived and deserves to have his stories on the big screen – but the execution is miserable. Poe’s stories that are used as part of the plot feel like they were picked out of a hat and then haphazardly thrown into the script like a misshapen puzzle piece. The structure and pacing is choppy at best, constantly shifting gears and changing stories, and the ending is so out-of-left-field that you actually find yourself wondering if you may have dozed off at some point. I suppose the best thing to say about it is that it’s not predictable, but in the grand scheme that’s not much of a compliment.
The Raven is a hard movie to watch, and not just in the sense of its brutality. There’s so much wasted potential at play, from the nugget of an idea at the center of the story to the great cast. Unfortunately, there’s nothing to the execution and the result is a loud, over-done piece of noise and nonsense.