By all accounts, Edgar Allen Poe was a small, unassuming man with a groomed mustache and a generally soft-spoken manner.
Doesn’t exactly scream ‘John Cusack’, now, does it?
The tall (and, in this case, incongruously goateed) actor commands the room every time he walks in. And the first time we see him as Poe in James McTeigue’s The Raven, he’s a loud, obnoxious drunk, picking fights in a bar.
Sure, creative license is allowed (note Robert Downey, Jr.’s excellent work in turning the fictional Sherlock Holmes into a wild man who can knock out bad guys with a single punch), but here the casting of John Cusack is just plain odd– and it’s only one of many missteps the filmmakers made on The Raven‘s path to the cineplex. (It’s a shame their original choice, Ewan McGregor, bowed out.)
The Raven is, at its core, a classic whodunit. Set during the last days of Poe’s life, it tells the story of a madman who’s running around using Poe’s stories (including “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Pit and the Pendulum”) as inspiration for a series of copycat murders. Detective Fields (Luke Evans) calls Poe in to help solve the crimes, and then things get personal when Poe’s fiancée Emily (Alice Eve) is kidnapped by the killer and buried alive.
In 2005, McTeigue gave us V for Vendetta, a gripping, stylistic film that still resonates today. What happened to him in the seven years since then is a mystery (that he should have solved before tackling the mystery at the heart of The Raven.)
There are some genuinely suspenseful moments here, particularly in the second half when the sense of urgency is ramped up, but there are also too many filler moments that plod along and bring the action to a screeching halt. And at times the gore (particularly during the let’s-show-everything ‘pendulum’ scene) is so over-the-top it becomes almost silly.
Cusack, for his part, does a fine job orchestrating the action onscreen, without bearing any resemblance to the actual Poe. And he shares good professional chemistry with Evans, who gets the job done despite being overly blustery at times. Eve, however, is wasted in her role as the Victorian eye candy– amounting to not much more than a panicking woman in a box.
Screenwriters Hannah Shakespeare (no relation, we can safely assume) and Ben Livingston started with a decent idea with plenty of potential, but by the time we reach the big reveal in the final act, we’ve had to sit through almost two hours of flowery 19th-century speech broken up by head-scratching anachronisms (Poe is called ‘Eddie’ at one point. Seriously.)
Add to that the fact that the conclusion is reached with no clues along the way for the audience to play along with, and you may find yourself wishing you’d stayed home to watch yet another episode of Criminal Minds instead.