If you wanted to write a compelling story about the life of an author, you’d have a hard time finding a better subject than Edgar Allan Poe. He’s the classic artist who was underappreciated in his own time and someone whose work reflected the challenging, sometimes tragic nature of his life. Thus, it is no surprise that his persona has been used countless times in print, film and television as a vehicle for fictionalized narratives. The Raven is the latest example of this tradition — and it wastes the rich inspiration that Poe’s example should provide.
The Raven offers a fictionalized account of Poe’s final days: he’s played (broadly) by John Cusack as a hard-drinking, talented but combative man who is struggling to make a living with his writing skills. He’s also trying to figure out a way to marry society dame Emily (Alice Eve), a move forbidden by her wealthy father Captain Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson). However, fate has a bigger task in store for him when local detective Fields (Luke Evans) informs him that a killer has begun murdering people in ways inspired by his short stories.
From that point, The Raven settles into a formulaic thriller mode. In a nod to Masque Of The Red Death, the skull mask-clad mystery killer steals Emily away from a society ball under the nose of Poe and the cops. He then issues Poe a challenge: Poe must write stories in his classic style about the people being murdered if he hopes to get to Emily before she dies. Poe divides his time between cranking out prose and working with Fields to figure out clues, culminating in an ending that presents its own solution to the mystery behind the final moments of Poe.
If done properly, The Raven could have been a memorable blend of fact and fiction that provided commentary on Poe’s life and work. Instead, the people behind this film decided to make the umpteenth version of the by-the-numbers serial killer movie that Hollywood has been making and remaking since Silence Of The Lambs and Seven. The only difference here is the use of Poe’s stories and final days as set dressing for the same old stock shenanigans. A slight bit of lip service is given to the idea of Poe having to confront the morality of writing morbid horror tales by confronting a killer “inspired” by them but the script dispenses with this idea, its only interesting idea, as soon as it is mentioned.
The actual mystery unfolds in a pro-forma way, with dull suspense setpieces and a rather infuriating revelation of who the killer is. This review won’t reveal who that culprit is but suffice to say that this is the kind of movie that sets things up so there is no fair way you could guess who the killer is — and you get no bonus points for guessing the killers gets an “I’m so crazy” speech after being unmasked. For a period piece, it also shows slipshod attentiveness to historical accuracy in its dialogue (perhaps the best example is when the killer uses the phrase “I went a little nuts” in explaining the motivation behind the killings).
The direction does not help things: Wachowski Bros protégé James McTeigue, also responsible for the memorably wretched Ninja Assassin, delivers a film that has a professional visual gloss and little else. He can’t structure a suspense setpiece in a credibly tense way so everything plays out here in a mechanical fashion: heroes go after killer, they stalk around for a little bit, there’s a scuffle in the dark, killer gets away, rinse and repeat. Like all too many modern genre directors, McTeigue substitutes a look for a true directing style and seems bereft of inspiration when it comes to actually telling the story.
All that’s left is the acting and it ranges from competent to surprisingly bad. Cusack gives one of his worst performances as Poe, mainly because he is terribly miscast. He tries to force the character into his familiar quick-talking wiseguy characterization and that style is far too modern for this role. The film also features a number of scenes where Poe has to fly into a rage and Cusack looks rather silly in these bits. A friend of Your Humble Reviewer’s noted that this would have been a great role for Nicholas Cage and that assessment is spot-on: Cage wouldn’t have been able to salvage this lousy script but his instantly convincing brand of lunatic fireworks would have at least made it fun to watch.
As for the rest of the cast, Eve looks lovely in her vintage finery but sparks don’t fly between her and Cusack, perhaps because her role is underwritten (she’s more of a plot device than a character). Gleeson acquits himself well in a familiar character role. Evans fares the best as the film’s cop: he plays the role straight and does so in a committed fashion, making him a more compelling hero — in his own bland yet sincere way — than Poe.
In short, The Raven is dull as a serial killer thriller and a travesty as a tribute to Edgar Allan Poe. You’re better off revisiting Roger Corman’s string of Poe adaptations, which will deliver the blood and thunder theatrics that this movie merely aspires to.