With John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve, Brendan Gleeson, Kevin McNally. Written by Ben Livingston, Hannah Shakespeare. Directed by James McTeigue. Rated R (for bloody violence and grisly images). 111 minutes.
A news story this week announced that a statue to Edgar Allen Poe is to be erected in Boston. That’s very nice, but the fact is that Poe was not happy in his birthplace – he called it “Frogpondium” – and made his home in Baltimore. It is there he enjoyed what success he had in his lifetime and it there he is buried having died at the age of 40, remembered as the father of the modern mystery story as well as numerous poems and tales of macabre.
Poe was a controversial figure, maligned by his enemies, and who often lived in dire financial straits. He died under mysterious circumstances – variously attributed to alcoholism, drug addiction, consumption, or a brain disease – and it those meager facts which serve as the basis for THE RAVEN, a fictional account of the end of Poe’s life. Poe (played by John Cusack sporting an un-Poe-etic beard) gets caught up in a mystery in which someone is recreating the gruesome deaths the writer depicted in his stories (which is exactly the way the popular TV series “Castle” began).
So Detective Fields (Luke Evans) and Poe have to try to solve the mystery, but in spite of the killer taking his inspiration from Poe’s stories, the mystery itself owes little to Poe. Indeed, it the endangerment of Poe’s beloved (Alice Eve) that leads to the climactic showdown, with little sense of the dark and twisted motivations in Poe’s works. Take away all the 19th century atmospherics, and this could be an episode of some contemporary TV crime drama. One of the chief complaints about the film is the lack of sense for the time period, from the clumsy dialogue to the references to a “serial killer,” a term that would not be coined for more than a hundred years.
Cusack is an interesting actor with a broad range from comedy to drama to genre material like this, but he can’t do it alone. We never get a sense of the actual writer, only of a character caught up in a bizarre mystery against his will. Indeed, the script even makes him the prime suspect at first since whom else would use the devices of his stories to murder?
Perhaps that’s the real problem with “The Raven.” It posits an interesting idea and then doesn’t know what to do with it. It’s not so much that that this is a terrible film as it’s one that needed a lot more thought before they started shooting. If you’re going to have Poe as a character in a work of fiction, you should make good use of him, instead of just sticking him into a patchwork thriller. Poe has inspired generations of authors, filmmakers, and even musicians – check out the Alan Parsons Project’s classic “Tales of Mystery and Imagination” – but if this isn’t at the bottom of the list neither does it do for Poe what “Amadeus” did for Mozart.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.