Welcome to Thursday Trailer Face-Off, a feature in which we cast a critical eye on two similar upcoming film releases, pitting them against each other across a variety of categories to determine which is most deserving of your two hours. This week: The Raven vs. J. Edgar, the battle of the former heartthrobs playing famous historical Edgars determined to prevent crime.
Premise The Raven‘s plot revolves around the highly fictionalized last days of Edgar Allan Poe’s life. In it, the gruesome murder of a young woman is committed exactly according to the details of one of Poe’s stories. The killer—apparently of the serial persuasion—leaves a note explaining that he’s challenging Poe to find him, and he will leave clues on his upcoming victims. More murders follow, to the specifications of Poe’s imagination, and it becomes clear that the ultimate victim will be Poe’s lady, Emily. Poe has to figure out how to stop the murderer before he gets to her!
Here, we will concede that these two films have less in common than our typical Thursday Trailers fare; but the best thing they do have in common is so fun we couldn’t resist. J. Edgar is also about a famous historical Edgar! This time, it’s Hoover. (That would be a good tagline for the movie, if they’re still looking for a tagline: “This time, it’s Hoover.”) J. Edgar focuses on Hoover’s career from being appointed head of the Bureau of Investigation at age 24 through his five-decade political career—including his 37 years as the first director of the FBI, where he was both super-powerful and very controversial. The film seems to focus on his efforts to build the FBI’s efficiency by, for example, making all his employees line up in a hallway (0:40), and introducing a fingerprints database (0:55); as well as his possibly illegal evidence-gathering techniques (1:15) and his open-secret homosexuality (basically throughout the trailer, but especially 1:36). Hoover’s a pretty interesting guy, but we have to give this one to The Raven, because not enough screenwriters find ways to make movies out of short-story collections. Short Cuts this is not, we’re sure, but still: J. Edgar runs the risk of being a little dry, and The Raven definitely does not. Advantage: The Raven
Star Both The Raven and J. Edgar feature Edgars played by men who once graced the walls of teenaged girls’ bedrooms nationwide—just in different decades. The Raven‘s Edgar is played by John Cusack, ’80s teenage dream, while J. Edgar‘s Edgar is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, whom we still call “Leo” in Teen Beat parlance anytime we think about him. Their heartthrob bona fides are about equal—Say Anything and Titanic were equally influential on the burgeoning sexualities of their eras, we’d say—but it’s pretty clear who wins the category. Cusack was once nominated for a Golden Globe, which is cute, but DiCaprio’s been Oscar-nominated three times and is a genuine A-list star. Advantage: J. Edgar
Supporting Cast Along with Cusack, The Raven stars Luke Evans, Alice Eve, and Brendan Gleeson – good actors all! (And Alice Eve is so pretty.) But they’re beat out in sheer force of numbers by J. Edgar; its supporting cast is an embarrassment of riches. Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer, Josh Lucas! Dermot Mulroney, Ed Westwick, Lea Thompson! Judi Dench! Judi Dench. Done. Advantage: J. Edgar
Director The Raven was directed by James McTeigue, whose other big film was 2005’s V for Vendetta. He also directed an unfortunate-looking 2009 action film called Ninja Assassin, starring some kind of person named Rain. And he’s assistant-directed the Matrix films and a Star Wars movie. J. Edgar was directed by four-time Oscar winner Clint Eastwood, so it’s not a super-fair fight. Sorry, Jimmy. Advantage: J. Edgar
Stakes One problem a big, sweeping biopic like J. Edgar can face is that when you’re collapsing a half-century of a man’s life into a two-hour film, it can be easy to lose focus. We’ve watched the trailer a few times now, and we’re still not totally sure what the main drama, or conflict, is supposed to be: Hoover wrestling with his sexuality? Hoover semi-threatening the Kennedys (1:25) in order to maintain relevance as he ages—in, it must be noted, pretty awful makeup? It’s hard to tell. With The Raven, the stakes are both clear and high: Poe needs to figure out who’s been mining his stories as murderous blueprints, and he needs to do it fast, to prevent the killings of many more strangers and—more importantly—his best gal. That’s a strong motivation with a manageable timeline. Advantage: The Raven
Production Design There are definitely some really beautiful elements to The Raven, it seems—check out that dress on Emily at 1:20!—but in general, it looks more or less interchangeable with all the other vaguely Gothic thrillers of the last few years; none of its production-design elements set it apart from, say, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows or The Woman in Black. J. Edgar, on the other hand, stands out: it’s slick and smart, especially considering the long timespan the film covers. Consider the fifteen-year difference in time between when Hoover’s mother kisses him as a boy and as a man at 0:33, and how that’s reflected in their costuming and surroundings: the differences are subtle and well planned. The costuming, the restaurant and FBI scenes—it’s all impeccable, and what’s more, it doesn’t look like a carbon copy of Mad Men, which is a trap a lot of midcentury projects have fallen into lately. A++. Advantage: J. Edgar
The Verdict It’s really the cast and director that cinch the win for J. Edgar this week; though we’re a little worried the film might be kind of rambling and unfocused, we trust Clint Eastwood, Leo, and writer Dustin Lance Black to bring it home right. The Raven will probably be a pretty fun popcorn movie; in fact, we’d go so far as to say it’s our second-most-anticipated Ridiculous “Literature” Movie of this year (number one continues to be Anonymous, duh). But it can’t compete with Eastwood. Winner: J. Edgar