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.