After the promising opening moments of James McTiegue's The Raven are spent with anxious constables rushing to find slashed bodies in a locked room, and the entrance of Inspector Fields (Luke Evans), who approaches the conundrum like Auguste Dupin, John Cusack's Edgar Allan Poe chews the scenery with his superficial temper tantrums and clumsy gyrations, pulled by contrivance instead of subtextual motivations. For god's sake, didn't Cusack and the writers know Poe was a tortured soul with layers of spiritual complexity? Where's the empty pit of isolation and the breadth of despair he suffered through his boozing and melancholy? Yelling the word "f*ck" is not a suitable drama substitute. If only the real Poe could have lent a hand. I'm sure his dialog would have been richer and more sensible, and his suspense would have been palpable as well as plausible.
Plausibility is a good place to start since this movie adds little of it to tie its sensational events together. A wonderful premise brimming with potential limps instead from indecisive contextual stability as it purloins stock slasher and serial killer tidbits, piecemeal, without understanding their cumulative effect. It's almost like Saw in gruesomeness scale--the strikingly gory pendulum slice and dice on the rotund Rufus Griswold (John Warnaby)--then restrains its visual assault like Horrors of the Black Museum, then jumps from left to right to be similar to Se7en's broader cat and mouse conceit. Each staged execution of Poe's devilish demises by the villain is handled like a fast-food order without condiments, even if imaginatively far-fetched clues propel Poe and Fields one step closer to finding who that killer is and his motive; both of which appear on script cue out of thin air for the denoument's wrap-up, without any explicit or implied discernment along the way to prepare us for the revelation. It just happens.
Leading up to this, Poe rants, raves, throws his ego all around, sulks, and looks for his next drink--until his mind clears enough to recognize the clues being left behind; Fields, emotionless, analytical, dissects the problem methodically until he develops brain freeze, allowing Poe's now clear mind to take the lead; the blustery Captain Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson) hates Poe--who wants to marry Hamilton's daughter--until the captain becomes conciliatory and friend to Poe to help solve anothe clue, even though it's Poe's stories that have buried his daughter alive and all of them desperately trying to find her. Hamilton's daughter Emily (Alice Eve) loves Poe, but aside from an out of place allusion about him giving good head, made during an overly long and lifeless romantic interlude, why she would like a destitute, alcoholic, and egotistical ass such as Poe is portrayed is not clear. Her wispy and cold presence in every scene blends into the upholstery much of the time, so unless Poe is infatuated with sitting on her, I'm at a loss to understand the attraction they have. Even when she's clawing at the coffin she's buried in, she's as cold as a corpse already.
Then there are the vexing facts in the case of the uneven interior lighting from scene to scene. We go from moody interiors correctly matched with their dim gaslight and oil lamp sources to spectrums of bright white, impossible to be produced by the lamplight available, sandwiched between a few suitably bleak, mist-shrouded exteriors: a memorable chase under a gray sky and through a foggy, barren, forest brings to mind The Fall of the House of Usher.
Not much else is memorable except for the murder by pendulum. Its intensity is surprising given the duller deliveries of the subsequent murders. I'm not sure if practical effects were united with digital, but watching that enormous blade slice through Griswold's belly, him screaming, it cutting deeper with each notch of its giant gears rolling into place, all that blood and glistening chunks of visceral meat splashing wildly, and the blade finally bisecting Griswold into two lifeless parts as it comes to rest, stuck into the wooden table between them, is breathtakingly disturbing, but oddly out of place here. I wondered how the villain managed to build such an immense, clockwork precise contraption by himself. Poe even remarks he hadn't imagined the counterweight to be so large when he sees it.
I'm torn myself between loving and hating it, given the rest of this movie.