Poor Edgar Allan Poe…he essentially created crime fiction as we know it today, wrote memorable stories of horror and suspense, and was a well-respected critic and poet, but he hasn’t had much luck when it comes to the medium of cinema. Hollywood has periodically turned to Poe’s work for inspiration, but very rarely have they gotten it right; though back in the 1960s many lamented Roger Corman’s series of Poe adaptations starring Vincent Price, in retrospect at least they respected the mood and intent of his work. That’s a great deal more than can be said for The Raven, a new film about Poe and his writings that doesn’t have much use for historical accuracy, and even less for what makes a good suspense story.
Despite its title, The Raven has nothing to do with Edgar Allan Poe’s famous narrative poem of the lost Lenore. Instead, it’s a work of fiction that imagines the last days of Poe’s life in Baltimore, positing a scenario that essentially has nothing to do with the facts of the author’s life. In The Raven, John Cusack plays Poe, who has fallen on hard times and is addicted to alcohol and opium. He has lost his desire to write the sort of short stories that made him famous, and instead he’s trying to make ends meet as a literary critic, with little success. He is also in love with Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), a beautiful and much younger woman who is rather inexplicably infatuated with him over the vehement objections of her father (Brendan Gleeson), a wealthy newspaper publisher who loathes Poe. Meanwhile, a maniac on the loose in Baltimore is using Poe’s stories as a template for his killings, and his grisly work becomes personal when he kidnaps Emily and demands that Poe write descriptions of the crimes in order to receive clues to her whereabouts. Poe finds himself working side by side with Detective Fields (Luke Evans), a methodical police investigator with a keen eye and an understanding of the latest scientific methods, but Poe is upset by the fact that his work is inspiring a violent lunatic, especially when the woman he loves becomes a pawn in the game.
John Cusack doesn’t look all that much like Edgar Allan Poe, but given his intense stare, hangdog demeanor, and willingness to embrace emotionally extreme roles, he seemed a good casting choice for the lead in The Raven. However, as hard as Cusack tries, the screenplay by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare doesn’t give him enough to work with, never fully deciding if Poe is a sympathetic tortured soul or a dipsomaniac more worthy of our contempt. At the same time, Cusack seems to be trying to wedge a comic undercurrent into the character’s travails that might have worked, except that neither the script nor director James McTeigue’s misguided faith in it give Cusack much room to round out his performance. For all his flaws, at least Cusack is somewhat compelling as Poe, which is more than can be said for Alice Eve as Emily, who is emotionally blank despite her blonde beauty, or Luke Evans, who is stalwart but stiff as a board as the single-minded detective. While the film maintains a scrupulous period look, the dialogue and the attitudes of the characters suggest a 21st century crew playing dress up, and the picture’s affect is flat and unmemorable.
McTeigue seems to enjoy reconstructing the bloody nuts and bolts of Poe’s classic tales of terror, but he has no idea how to generate tension and suspense. Whatever satisfaction you might get from a razor-sharp pendulum finally slicing into its target, the director never for a moment allows us to believe that the victim will be saved, which misses the point of that famous scene. And for a movie that seems to put more importance on its look than its cast or its story, the frequently murky visuals are a regrettable choice. The Raven’s great flaw isn’t that it makes a silly fiction out of the last days of Edgar Allan Poe’s life -- after all, Roger Corman put Poe on a motorcycle in his movie Gas-S-S-S! and managed to make it fun and entertaining. It’s that the writers and director haven’t come up with anything half as imaginative or absorbing as the writings of the man it claims to honor, and instead one of the greatest American writers of his generation is remembered as a drunken oaf by filmmakers without a fraction of Poe’s talent. Quoth the Raven, “Skip this movie.”
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