“The Raven,” a new thriller starring John Cusack as mystery writer Edgar Allen Poe, is a convergence of fact, fiction and part police procedural. Poe must help the police track down a serial killer who is using his stories as inspiration, before the love-of-his-life becomes the final victim. It’s “CSI” meets E.A.P.
Set years after Poe’s greatest successes “The Tell Tale Heart” and “The Pit and the Pendulum,” the story begins with a mystery—a locked room containing two dead bodies, but no killer. When brash Baltimore Detective Fields (Luke Evans) makes a connection between the crime and Poe’s stories, the writer first becomes a suspect, then a collaborator.
Meanwhile Poe is trying to eek out a living writing for the local newspaper. “I’ve used up all my tricks,” he tells his editor, explaining why he can’t recreate the big-selling blood and guts of his best known work. Soon, however, the writer must put pen to paper when the mysterious killer kidnaps Poe’s fiancée, Emily (Alice Eve), threatening her with death unless he writes descriptions of the murders in the newspaper.
Despite drawing on the fantastic elements of Poe’s stories, the imposing presence of Brendan Gleeson as an irascible millionaire and the petticoats of Alice Eve, “The Raven” feels rather standard; a run-of-the-mill serial killer story dolled up with period clothes and a performance from Cusack that alternates between disinterest and Nic Cage’s anything goes intensity. It’s wildly uneven, although like all Cusack’s performances, it has a certain charm. The mannered nineteenth century language doesn’t seem to fit his mouth, but occasionally he pulls out a good line. For instance after reading one of the killer’s notes to the police Poe, the part-time critic, says, “Even his prose is barbaric.” It’s a funny line, well delivered, that breaks up the movie’s general feeling of doom and gloom.
Director James “V for Vendetta” McTeigue hasn’t imbued the film with the gothic feel it needs to feel suitably creepy, but worse, he completely misses out on the inventiveness of the stories that inspired the movie. Poe’s works were atmospheric studies of madness, sin and horror but here we are given an average tale, which, if dressed up in modern clothes, wouldn’t feel out of place on any prime time police drama.
Inspired though the crimes may have been by Poe’s work, even Poe scholars couldn’t piece together the solution. Not because it is complicated—it isn’t—but because the clues exist only in the world of the film—the viewer doesn’t have a chance to play along. Between the bumpy journey to finding out who the killer is and the logistically impossible enduing “The Raven” has one of the trademarks of Poe’s carefully crafted work.
“The Raven” isn’t a terrible movie, it’s just a really average one. But it’s as if the filmmakers knew it was going to take a critical pounding and threw in some preemptive strikes against reviewers. Early on a critic is dispatched in a very gruesome way and later Poe dismisses criticism as “the easy stuff.” Maybe he’s right, but I’m not wrong about this movie.