The Raven begins by purporting itself as the untold tale of Edgar Allan Poe’s fate. In doing so, it gets everything wrong. Everything. Poe’s death being the subject of American legend, mysterious as anything the man ever wrote, would seem particularly inviting to a bit of speculative fiction, and the theories of people much smarter than those responsible for The Raven range from murder to disease, with all manner of exotic, period-specific possibilities considered. Here, Edgar Allan Poe is the victim of a madman’s obsession, a person whose devious machinations draw Poe into an investigation of a series of grisly murders. If he does not solve the crime, the killer promises, Poe’s beloved will die.
There’s plenty of stuff here that you’ll just have to accept for The Raven to function as intended, first and foremost being that Poe (John Cusack) is the drunken, disturbed poet of literary apocrypha—this despite the fact that the man responsible for the account, a rival critic of Poe’s, is one of the men killed during the investigation. Then there’s Poe’s relationship with the fictitious Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), the wholly new idea of Poe as a sort of gun-toting Sherlock Holmes, that he had a goatee and not his famous mustache, and, oddest of all, a pet raccoon, which Poe feeds with discarded human hearts.
Casting those aspersions aside, we’re left with this: In 1849, Edgar Allen Poe visits Baltimore intending to ask Emily Hamilton’s hand in marriage, but there’s a murderer on the loose, and he’s using bits and pieces of Poe’s work to get his killing done. Poe is called in by Detective Emmett Fields (Luke Evans) when he notices that the means of a killer’s escape are as described in one of his short stories and, after determining that Poe’s not the one murdering the hapless citizens of Baltimore, enlists him in the manhunt. This suits the killer fine, as he kidnaps Emily and challenges Poe to a game of wits with her life on the line.
The Raven‘s conceit—forcing an author to act in and write about events that will lead to his demise—is an interesting one reduced to standard-issue potboiler so trite that the editor (Kevin McNally) of a newspaper that frequently publishes Poe gives the poet a variation of the police captain’s “You’re a renegade!” speech, stopping just short of demanding Poe turn in his quill and inkpot. The killer’s motives are rooted in sentimentality for the author, but there’s so much smoke, so many mirrors, that the eventual reveal is nothing short of underwhelming, which the screenwriters know, as they give the killer much time at the film’s end for him to build a case for himself as compelling and sensible, not at all the cop-out he represents. Part of the issue here is that The Raven surrounds Poe with a cast of lifeless characters whose attire and facial hair admirably try and ultimately fail to imbue the production with the same murk and ambiance of the stories that inspired it.
Of course, holding court with a drunken madman is no easy task. But this is a rare instance where John Cusack is unable to carry the proceedings. There’s an unwelcome awkwardness to him, especially in scenes that require Poe to be over the top, like when he challenges the patrons of a bar to finish a line from “The Raven.” It doesn’t feel natural, watching Cusack stomp around insisting that Americans wouldn’t recognize a literary genius were he drinking at the bar with them, and as The Raven shifts focus to its cat-and-mouse game, he never seems at home in the character, like Robert Downey Jr.‘s glammed up Sherlock Homes, or, to a lesser extent, the jittery Nic Cage protagonist from National Treasure. Cusack is often called upon to be as mad and maudlin as many hammier Cage characters, but it’s like somebody stuck a mute in him.
At one point in the investigation, Poe becomes indignant at the thought of somebody pilfering his stories. The irony of this shouldn’t be lost on anybody. “The Pit and the Pendulum” becomes a suitably gore-spattered murder, sure, but The Raven has this absurd, single-minded view of Poe’s stories as mere descriptions of murder. It lifts elements like the pendulum, the friend beneath the floorboards, the killer’s clever means of escape, and forgets that Poe’s narrators—often the murderers of the story—are fleshed out men of emotion; generally speaking, the audience cares why the madman seals his friend behind the walls. The Raven robs these stories of their suspense, inserting a villain and a motive about as inspired as the killer on a standard episode of CSI. The best moment he has is when he tells Poe that he’s taken a shine to Jules Verne. No doubt he imagines himself drowning the author.
The Raven. Directed by James McTeigue. With John Cusack (Edgar Allan Poe), Luke Evans (Inspector Fields), Alice Eve (Emily Hamilton), Brendan Gleeson (Captain Hamilton), and Keven McNally (Maddux). Released April 27, 2012, by Rogue Pictures.