Music Feature

Film Review: The Raven

by Piers Marchant
Quoth the raven: This is awful.

Dir. James McTeigue
Score: 3.5

In the spirit of the casting of John Cusack as Edgar Allen Poe, perhaps we can come up with some other, similarly ill-conceived actor/writer combinations. How about Nick Nolte as Ernest Hemingway? John Travolta as William Faulkner? Elizabeth Banks as Emily Dickenson? Jack Black as Homer? The possibilities are nearly endless. Unfortunately, the producers thought they were on to something with Cusack -- who, it must be said, does at least share a similar hair line to the great, gothic writer -- but instead, they've found the perfect personification of every other horrific misstep the filmmakers have chosen.

This is something of a shame, because the essential components of the film are solidly intriguing: Late in Poe's life, as he's struggling with alcoholism and dissolution, a serial killer begins murdering people in Baltimore using Poe's various macabre short stories as a study guide. It's up to Poe to try and solve the mysteries, along with Det. Fields (Luke Evans) before the killer acts again. The ante is considerably raised when Poe's beautiful fiancé, Emily (Alice Eve), is abducted by the killer, who uses her as bait for Poe to write one final story and publish it in the daily paper.

But whereas the actual Poe, a grave and somber man, filled with equal amounts arrogance, self-loathing and intellectual fire, might have taken this challenge in the right spirit, Cusack's Poe -- quick-witted, rascally and lovable -- whines and winnies his way to solving the case. The film goes (way) out of its way to include some of Poe's own fine prose -- going so far as to have the writer bark out the most famous line of his signature poem in a crowded rough and tumble bar -- as a way of paying homage to him, but the version of Poe presented on screen is more cartoonish than anything Chuck Jones would have dreamed up.

Apart from everything else, Cusack simply doesn't have the spirit of his character in his emotional possession. You can no more ask him to play the despondent, twisted Poe than you could have a six-year-old do justice to King Lear. As a result, from the get-go, the film has the tacky veneer of a Hollywood production, too weak-minded to bother getting the details correct. They fill in the cracks with plenty of CGI fog and blood splatters, and ridiculous plot points that don't lead us anywhere the least bit interesting. It doesn't help that screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare make liberal use of the laziest crutch in the canon of mystery writing: a villain whose every intricate plan and nuance works precisely as intended and at the exact right time (a messenger on a horse riding from far away arrives at a party precisely at the stroke of midnight; a clue is discovered in preposterous fashion and is instantly understood to be mark of longitude, etc.)

For all its precision claptrap, however, the movie is never able to identify its single, greatest mystery: Who thought this would be a good idea?

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