Sunday, April 29, 2012

Quoth the Raven, "Meh."

It was inevitable. I ran out to see The Raven. I even drove up to Baltimore. OK, not quite just for that; it was part of an outing with a steampunk group I've started hanging out with. We had dinner in Fell's Point, tripping over cobbled streets in the shadow of 19th-century buildings, and headed over to see the movie.

So, it's 1849. Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) is roaming Baltimore, broke, trying to cadge drinks in bars. He argues with a local editor, romances a local heiress Emily (Alice Eve), dodges her father's disapproval (Brendan Gleeson), and then suddenly finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation. It seems a serial killer is using the murder methods from Poe's stories. Detective Fields (Luke Evans) enlists Poe to assist him and hopefully nail the murderer. It gets nasty when Emily is abducted and held prisoner in a coffin, and Edgar is forced to solve a series of puzzles to win her release.

The setup sounds cool, to be sure, but in's all so empty. There's a lifelessness to it all. It's all handsome enough, with Budapest and Belgrade standing in for 19th-century Baltimore. But it often seems as if they were going down a checklist, not only of Poe material but of historical mystery cliches. Masquerade ball? Check. Crypt? Check. Backstage in a theater? Check. It seems as if they were obligated to go from one element to another, rather than simply letting the story take them where it will.

But it also makes a lot of gaffes. Who the hell is this Emily? Where did she come from? And one of the murder victims is Rufus Griswold, Poe's literary rival, who outlived Poe by eight years, was Poe's literary executor, and wrote an infamously snide obituary upon Poe's passing.

There's also goofs about Poe himself. Poe never called himself "Edgar Allan Poe" but "Edgar A. Poe." And at one point Poe is asked if he'd written any stories about sailors, and he says, "No." I wanted to stand up and scream, "YES!" because Poe's oeuvre contains sea stories like "Ms. Found in a Bottle," "Descent into the Maelstrom," and "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym." Heck, even "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" involves a sailor. They also have Poe using opium, which I don't believe is historical.

John Cusack is a serviceable Poe; he does try to capture Poe's self-importance and self-aggrandizing nature, as well as his desperation for money to survive. But we never get Poe's humor (he WAS an excellent humorist) or Poe's fascination with science (at this point in his life, Poe was segueing into being a speaker and writer on scientific topics). And his Poe never really comes across as being likable.

Another problem is that there's a question as to who the central hero is. Poe shares the top hero billing with Det. Fields, vigorously played by Luke Evans. I can't fault Evans too much as the script doesn't call for him to play anything except Stalwart and Determined, so it ends up being a one-note performance...but Evans makes it a good one-note performance. He's believable in his role, more so than Cusack, and I found myself wishing they could bring the character back. He was easy on the eyes, but also fit into the role well.

In fact, it would have been a better movie with one or the other in the hero role, but not both. The muddle of focus meant it lacked a clear point. The murderer was also easily spotted, at least for my own oddball reasons; the actor looked a lot like a young Michael Gough.

It's unfortunate, because it's got great trappings, and all the right visual elements. There's something about the clatter of hooves on cobblestones that sets my blood astir, and there's great Gothick scenes in the villain's lair and other spots. But others sometimes seem too perfect; the masquerade ball was just a little too much, and I kept expecting Annie Lennox to show up singing "Walking On Broken Glass" or something.

The movie is also about Poe's death, and gives its own solution, which is just too pat. Poe's death is one of the great mysteries of history, although John Evangelist Walsh gave a good theory in his book Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe that's always been my favorite. 

But...OK, here we go...another problem that arose was that I kept thinking of another book I'd read a long time ago, Harold Schechter's Nevermore, that also involved Poe investigating a serial killer in 19th century Baltimore who was using Poe's stories as inspiration. It had a different murderer and had Poe teaming with Davy Crockett, but the parallels are a bit uncomfortable for me. I wonder what he has to say on it.

Is it worth seeing? I have to sigh and say, "Not really." Catch it on DVD or cable, but don't go out of your way to see it. Not to say I didn't have a good time on my outing, because I did, but the movie was the least of it. It's not BAD, per se, but just not all that good, either. It's meh.

The perfect film about Poe is waiting to be made....


Pdidy said...

The movie is not meant to be historically accurate, it' a fictional presentation of Poe's last days. Luke Evans is very easy on the eyes, brilliant actor and lovely person.

Pdidy said...

The movie was never meant to be a historically accurate account of EA Poe's death or life for that matter. James McTeigue has never claimed that at all. It's a fictional account and as such they took liberties with the story. I have not seen it yet, but I have to agree with your comment about Luke Evans, easy on the eyes, and most importantly brilliant actor and lovely person.

Vagrarian said...

Well, I wasn't expecting absolute historical accuracy; perhaps I had more time to reflect on it since I found the film so lifeless?

This was my first exposure to Luke Evans; as I said, it was one-note but he did the best he could. He made for a sincere and determined detective hero and was one of the better parts of the movie for me.