The Raven Is a Painful Reminder That John Cusack Is John Cusack
Time has not been kind to John Cusack. This is not to say that his appearance has deteriorated, but rather to say that he’s aged out of type. In the ‘90s, he embodied the angsty, quick-witted, single boy-men of Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity. (It never seemed like he was really acting.) But 12 years later, unlike the actor himself, Cusack’s acting remains unaged—inflexibly the same. Like in 2012 where he plays the quick-witted, single father during Earth’s destruction. Or in 1408, where he plays the quick-witted writer investigating a haunted hotel. He does not alter his voice, nor does he change his mannerisms or delivery. (As a friend so adroitly said to me the other day: “John Cusack can’t escape being John Cusack, no matter who he tries to play.”) In The Raven, Cusack portrays Edgar Allan Poe. Which is just Cusack with a goatee.
On an early October morning in 1840, Edgar Allan Poe was found rambling and incoherent on a Baltimore street. Days later he would be dead at the age of 40. Neither the exact cause of death nor what brought him to that state was ever known—all theories, merely conjecture. The Raven—the needlessly bloody, wearisome film—posits that Poe’s final days were not spent in drunken stupor or suffering from late stages of syphilis. Rather, they were spent tracking a killer who was using Poe’s stories as inspiration.
Directed by James McTeigue and written by Ben Livingston and Hanna Shakespeare, The Raven is devoid of originality. The foggy, Baltimore streets are reminiscent of the far superior Sweeney Todd and From Hell. The concept of a police department working with a crime writer can be seen Monday nights on ABC (Castle). Several shots are also customary: close-up of a puddle that’s run over by a wagon wheel, the unknown bad guy—seen only through a small hole—licking his lips, and shadowy, long-caped figures walking through dense fog. Even the dialogue is often rote (“I am Poe. Not poor.”), not to mention painfully anachronistic (“Shut it or I’ll shut it for you!”).
What is surprising is the unnecessary gore. The majority of the film is standard mystery: talking, running, occasional shouting by Cusack to let us know he’s upset. Yet dispersed among the humdrum are horrifyingly violent images that linger too long: a man getting cut in half (a la The Pit and the Pendulum), a nearly decapitated woman, and a man’s throat being slit open. With fewer shots or just glimpses of the carnage, the film could easily have been PG-13. Instead, with the inclusion of these gratuitously violent scenes, the filmmakers chose to reduce its audience with an R-rating.
(Also surprising is the randomly modern, closing credits. Somewhat derivative of Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo opening title, it feels completely mismatched to the Victorian-looking film.)
The Raven features Cusack, again, playing a version of himself (this time: a quick-witted, drunk-but-never-really-drunk writer trying to solve a mystery). With a macabre protagonist who specialized in macabre stories, it could have been a fun and intriguing PG-13 yarn. Instead, it is a bloody boring film that spends more time on blood than plot.
My Grade: C-