I have to give “The Raven” credit for being ambitious. Sadly it is an ambitious failure but, hey, at least they tried.
On paper, this movie bubbles with potential. In the 1840s Baltimore, a serial killer begins dispatching his victims by using the macabre stories of Edgar Allan Poe as the inspiration for the murders.
Then Poe himself is called in to aid in the investigation because he not only wrote the stories that inspired the murderer but is also uniquely qualified as a sleuth in that he is credited with inventing the detective genre of fiction a good half-century before the advent of Sherlock Holmes.
Add in Poe’s famously volatile personality and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death and “The Raven” sounds like a pretty cool flick, no?
Unfortunately, the execution is clunky at best and with the added weight of some flat acting performances, not even an inspired turn by John Cusack as Poe can save this film.
Let’s start handing out blame, shall we? I’ll give the first helping to co-screenwriters Hannah Shakespeare (no pressure with that name) and Ben Livingston (an actor turned the first-time writer).
While their over-arching story idea flirts with brilliance, the details of the movie are messy, which is a film that draws inspiration from a writer who was known for his efficiency and tight plotting is kind of a deal-breaker.
The clunky non-Poe dialogue and glaring plot holes don’t help matters any either.
Let’s move on to director James McTeigue, who much like his screenwriters does a lot of things right but can’t quite overcome all he does wrong.
McTeigue nails the tone of this movie from the gloomy streets of mid-19th-century Baltimore to the foggy woods outside of town, as “The Raven” has an atmosphere for days. The film is appropriately gruesome; the fiendish murder perpetrated in “The Pit and the Pendulum” (performed in the film on a critic, nice touch) is as tensely horrifying as you would imagine.
What haunts McTeigue (best known for directing the well-done “V for Vendetta”) is his inability to tighten the screws and deliver the deliberate pacing a thriller of this ilk requires. You get the feeling that in the hands of a control freak like David Fincher “The Raven” could have been a good movie.
Lastly, the film is hamstrung by poor performances from the supporting cast, most notably Luke Evans, who plays Detective Fields, the lead investigator on the case and Poe’s emotional counterbalance, and Alice Eve, who plays Emily Hamilton, Poe’s love interest who is kidnapped by the killer and provides Poe with a little extra motivation to stop the killing spree.
Their performances are wooden and overly melodramatic, especially when compared with Cusack’s dynamic turn.
I feel sorry for Cusack here because he really does a good job and seems more invested in this role than any I’ve seen him in in the past decade. Poe was dark and melancholy and brilliant, but he was also self-absorbed, witty, and kind of a jerk. Cusack plays all of these aspects of Poe’s personality quite aptly and nimbly.
Poe always will be beloved because he is often the first writer introduced to students who prove that classic literature isn’t always dull and dusty by showing it can also be bloody and tense and emotionally raw.
“The Raven” attempted to present the weighty ramifications of Poe, the man, confronting this literary legacy by dressing it up as your standard Hollywood thriller. It’s a shame it didn’t work because you get the feeling the opportunity to make a truly great movie was missed.
Let’s just be sure that from now on we let poor Edgar rest in peace until we have a really good reason to disturb him.
“The Raven” is rated R for bloody violence and grisly images.