There are moments in The Raven, director James McTeigue's (V for Vendetta) attempt to enlist the poet Edgar Allan Poe as a detective in 19th century Baltimore to help police solve a string of murders in which the crime scenes pay homage to Poe's own stories, where the whole production comes undone. Under-choreographed actors bump against one another and struggle to manage crucial props all in an effort to spit out dialogue so completely unaware of itself that it seems impossible for it to have been written anywhere but on the set, likely the morning of the scene. It's in these moments, ironically, that The Raven takes on a certain charm, reminiscent of Roger Corman's Poe films restaged as summer-stock theater.
One of these moments is still funny days later: John Cusack, who plays Poe with zero regard for believability or style, finds a taunting note left by the killer. Once he finally unfolds it, he reads aloud a crude knockoff of Poe's rhyming scheme, something Poe, a vicious literary critic in real life, can't resist snarking at. “Even the man's prose is barbaric,” he mutters, immediately followed by Cusack's fumbling of a poorly written line that actually misuses the word “godspeed.” How deliciously dumb.
The film takes advantage of the mysterious circumstances of Poe's real-life final days by bizarrely cobbling together a narrative that places him right in the public's eye, in plain sight and in print. Once enlisted by Detective Fields (Luke Evans) following the discovery of two murdered women positioned to replicate Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue (other of the author's stories referenced, drawn from the writers' research conducted, it would seem, on Wikipedia, include The Pit and the Pendulum, Annabel Lee, The Premature Burial and Shakespeare's Macbeth for some reason) the broke, alcoholic and newly engaged Poe offers almost no insight into his own inspiration, footnotes or research, which might have the damaging cinematic effect of resulting in the murderer's capture. Outrageously, Cusack's Detective Poe is passive, in over his head and practically unhelpful - a sad showing for the man widely considered to have written the first detective story in history.
When his fiancée, the fictional Emily Hamilton (played by Alice Eve, whose porcelain complexion, pearly white teeth and yoga body feels particularly insulting), goes missing, we expect that the stakes are appropriately raised and Poe's value might finally be validated. Alas, he opts to repeatedly shout her name in an underground sewer.
The screenplay by actor Ben Livingston and former Playboy Club writer Hannah Shakespeare, resists adventure at every turn; it feels rushed, poorly structured and determined to disappoint. McTeigue, meanwhile, injects a metal soundtrack as if his sole Gothic reference point was The Crow and dresses Baltimore and his astoundingly uninspired crime scenes with low-level fog, pint after pint of red corn syrup and a swishy, Romantic affectation that makes every new locale feel hollow.
As likable as he is, Cusack must bear the brunt of the blame here. Yes, The Raven had its share of casting switcheroos and release delays, and McTeigue, the film's shepherd from the start, seems incapable of delivering an intelligent film, but Cusack's flat performance is simply painful to watch, especially since the script attempts to cast Poe as a man with a barbed tongue, impeccable wit and fascinating flaws. Livingston and Shakespeare delivered none of those things in the writing, true, but Cusack barely seems to try, and at times - especially in those weirdly charming moments of rock bottom - he flails in his desperation. John Cusack should never have to flail to make material work, nor should he visibly give up when he's playing a man known for such exquisite concealment.
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