Mouth-breathers and Philistines: The Raven (2012)
By Dom Sinacola· Mar 07, 2013
The biggest disappointment of The Raven doesn’t come until the end of the movie, when we discover that Edgar Allen Poe (John Cusack) isn’t the murderer after all. Turns out it was the copyeditor—or some grunt who works the printing presses or something—named Ivan (Sam Hazeldine). I repeat: the killer is not a hallucinated function of Poe’s morbidly split personality à la Cusack’s other “they-were-all-in-his-head!” shit-fest, Identity. It’s a hard pill to swallow, that that’s not what happens. Because that’s what should have happened. And it didn’t. Instead, some blue collar schmuck who’s barely in the movie is revealed as the killer. And Poe says the word “philistine” like five times. Woof.
So, anyway, er: spoiler alert up there. Sorry.1 Though I suppose that it isn’t too far into the film that it becomes clear the killer will either be A) Poe himself, or B) someone we’ve already met who is a really uninteresting choice for a murderer. If it’s not Poe, then could it be Griswold (John Warnaby), Poe’s jowly editor at The Baltimore Patriot, who I was sure was Brendan Gleeson until the real fucking Brendan Gleeson shows up to harumph at Poe for pretty much the first hour of the movie? Could it be the dashing Inspector Emmett Fields (Luke Evans)? One of the men in his police squad? Could it be Ivan, the dour-eyed nincompoop who works at the paper? Oh, it is? Huh. That’s fine… Does everyone with a full beard at some point resemble Brendan Gleeson? I feel like this is fact.
The Raven is a horror movie about fanatacism based on Edgar Allen Poe’s most famous works that assumes you are not fanatic about Edgar Allen Poe nor about horror movies. Directed by James McTeigue—who previously sharted out the redonkulous V For Vendetta2 and also Ninja Assassin3 —The Raven chronicles the last couple days in Poe’s life, historically a mystery but bookended by his discovery on a park bench in Baltimore, clearly out of his mind, muttering the name “Reynolds” over and over, before his inevitable death four days later. He never recovered from his delirium and all records of his medical stay and subsequent death were lost—as was the reason of his perishing. The funniest theory is that Poe was a victim of “cooping,” which was the mid-nineteenth century practice of voting fraud perpetrated by so-called “cooping gangs” wherein poor chumps were practically kidnapped from the middle of the street and forced to vote multiple times for the particular candidate behind the cooping gang. These victims were threatened with regular beatings and even death if they refused to comply, but typically placated with drugs and alcohol—which falls in line with Poe’s well-known alcoholism—and the lesser known treat: fancy outifts.
(As a possible example of the movie’s general lack of giving a shit about history, it’s preceded by an introductory title card:
Actually, Poe was found on the 3rd. He died on the 7th.)
Instead, McTeigue and screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare (yes, that) postulate that Poe’s final days were spent attempting to rescue his beloved Emily Hamilton from the clutches of a serial killer who both idolized Poe and used his stories as inspiration for a number of grisly murders. “The Murder in the Rue Morgue” is the short story that serves as the catalyst for both Inspector Fields’ and then Poe’s involvement, as Fields recognizes the puzzling nature of the crime scene as cribbed straight from Poe’s imagination. Fields sends for Poe, who typically spends his days picking through cat entrails—because—and frequenting bars where no one, including the bartender, gives a shit about the pompous, washed-up, squirrely drunk who begs for free brandy while insulting the whole room’s vocabulary, even though he mostly calls everyone “mouth-breather” and “philistine,” which, as I’ve said before, is his go-to dickwad word. John Cusack, bless his heart, formidably hams it up, seemingly in thrall to the fact that he’s playing Edgar Allen Poe, who, in addition to being a great mind, was maybe a real legendary kind of an intolerable asshat.
Fields is a picture of manhood: intelligent, cultured, athletic, handsome, authoritarian, and so it’s not all that much of a surprise when he’s revealed to be a vampire:
OK, he’s not a vampire, but holy shit lookit those teeth! Fields and his wicked canines know intuitively that Poe isn’t the killer, which is supported by folks like Griswold and Emily who spend most of the movie’s exposition reminding everyone in earshot that, yeah, Poe’s a real sad fuck, but he’s also a genius, so he’s just especially sensitive to misery. Give him a break, K?
Cut to “The Pit and the Pendulum” scene, where I simply stood in front of my TV and repeated, “No, movie, no. Stop it. No. Come on, movie,” until the pendulum lodged with a wet thunk in that guy’s gut.
In much the same way Poe picks through the masticated organs of a stray cat…
…the pendulum’s gross, clicking descent is gratuitous, well past the point of championing the potential for 3D (which, given the movie’s budget and marketability, seems to have been abandoned halfway through filming) to cackling at its own mess. Like most inane thrillers of our generation, it mistakes revulsion for “thrills” and some Dr. Caligari-ish CGI for a portentous hellscape.
A line thrown willy-nilly througout The Raven is how the public loves, when it comes to short stories, and especially Poe’s, “the gory ones.” Yet the camera revels too much in all the splatter. If McTeigue or the writers are trying to make any sort of satirical comment on the moviegoing public’s love of senseless violence, they should probably take their own boners down a notch or two.
A rudimentary knowledge of Poe’s works suffices—which means there are a lot of dying people behind mortared brick walls (“The Cask of Amontillado”), a lot of dying people buried under the floor boards (“The Telltale Heart”), and a lot of ravens (“The Raven”; The Raven). These stories Poe namedrops regularly, all “Wowee, Fields, that’s some real sick ‘Pendulum’ shit up in this dusty, abandoned warehouse, bruh” until, inevitably, Poe is writing stories to be published in the newspaper the very next day, essentially instructing the killer as to what to do next. Even though I don’t remember that ever actually being explained, Fields just literally telling Poe to “write it”—it was just the assumed character arc Poe had to follow: from man out of control to man finally grabbing hold of his destiny. “Back off you mouth-breather, I’m writing my own fate here!”
For a movie that explains itself so throughly, moments of odd pause—such as the alcoholic Poe staring down a glass of brandy in the midst of a fevered hunt for Emily; Emily’s father (Gleeson), who has no problem publicly despising Poe and his drunkeness, insists Poe take a drink; and then Poe does, even though the long drawl of the camera’s movement insists Poe is at a moral crossroads—telegraph a climax much more beguiling than the actual result.4 Which is that the copyeditor did it. Elsewhere, Poe chases the killer through a foggy forest; shots ring out indiscriminately. Who’s shooting at whom? Or what? Before this we join Poe and the police as they chase the killer through a python’s tail of underground tunnels, Poe never in the same place as the killer, and the viewer just hopelessly lost.
Which is appropriate for the raven, long believed to be a symbol of hopelessness, of regret and remorse. If Poe is the Raven of the movie’s namesake, or if the Raven represents Poe’s dark side—the misery and deep, deep melancholy that is able to conjure up such grotesqueness—The Raven suggests that Poe might as well be committing these murders himself, so manipulated is Ivan to follow Poe’s every single perverted bloodletting. Yet Ivan proves himself to be as equally adept at manipulation, able to corner Poe into knowing he has to make a decision between his own life and that of Emily’s, a tête-à-tête which ends in Poe drinking a vial of “poison” to learn where Emily’s been stashed. And of course she’s been stashed under the floorboards. In case you didn’t make that connection, Poe hollers, “‘The Telltale Heart’!” It’s just like his story! And then Ivan tells Poe that he’s skipping town under the name “Reynolds,” pretty much slipping into full-on Bond villain mode. He’s going to go to France and stalk the shit out of poor Jules Verne. Poe starts passing out and weeping at the same time, like: “Fuck. This guy?”
“Reynolds” is what Poe is raving when he’s discovered on the park bench, and “Reynolds” is basically the last word the doctor tells Fields Poe uttered. Somehow—just fucking somehow—Fields is able to track down Ivan in Paris, and that’s how the movie ends: with Fields capturing a surprised Ivan, and some stock anachronistic alterna-rock. Which is where the whole Poe/Ivan relationship falls apart, because if Poe really was supposed to be that much of an architect of his fate, then Ivan should have been less of an architect of his own. Poe is merely hornswoggled; he may have saved Emily, but his sacrifice registers as a noble gesture and that’s it. Now, an Edgar Allen Poe who is his own worst enemy, rotted to his very heart with the menial pain of life and death, so much so that one side of his conscious mind cannot even stand the pain of recognizing the other? The kind of Edgar Allen Poe’d who’d fall too quickly prey to a cooping gang? If that was the case, if that was the movie’s bonafide “twist,” then, shit, whatever—I’ll take that over the copyeditor any day.
Oh, right; he also had a pet raccoon. He called him Carl.
1 I’m not sorry.
2 Attention, the majority of OKCupid accounts: V For Vendetta is a stupid movie.
3 Which was cool for like three minutes up to and including when dude’s head got sliced cleanly in half lengthwise, his tongue all sputtering up out of his neck hole like Punxsutawney Phil spooked by a paparazzo.
4 And what about the whole costume ball, where Poe’s mask and the reminder that the killer could look like “ANYBODY” seems to prelude a case of mistaken identity, ensuring Emily’s capture? But I guess that was actually Poe? Stil, Emily’s just easily kidnapped, ripped right out of Poe’s grip, and so at what point are we supposed to not think he’s actually the killer? Also: Fields insists all his men wear matching masks to run standard security. Hee!