“Regardless of what you think of me, I am a master of my art, and I will not fail her.”
So says Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) as he pens a new story in an effort to save his kidnapped fiancé from the hands of a serial killer using Poe’s own stories as inspiration for his murders. Does that sentence sound convoluted? More so than the quote preceding it?
I’d say it’s a toss-up, along with my feelings about The Raven. The premise of the movie is so appealing it almost makes up for faulty execution. Parts sound intriguing: like the latter half of the quote and the inspired serial killer aspect of my summary. Others sound ridiculous: how does “regardless of what you think of me” factor into the equation? In context it makes a bit more sense, but when that aspect is further examined it makes even less. Let’s do that, shall we?
In The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe is a broke, drunken, jackass who’s hellbent on establishing himself as the greatest writer of all time and, more importantly, getting the recognition for it. He hasn’t made nearly enough off of his writings to live on, and he’s spending most of his time reading his poems aloud and then analyzing housewives’ work.
Then he learns of a pair of grizzly murders reminiscent of deaths Poe wrote in his stories. Detective Fields (Luke Evans) initially suspects Poe himself, but then dismisses the notion after a few coworkers attest to the writer’s moral credibility. Is it normal police procedure to cross a suspect off a list because one or two people claim he’s not capable of committing murder? I doubt it, but if you can go along with that, there will be other leaps of faith coming later that are too wide to make.
One such leap comes from the surprising bits of gore that pop up in The Raven. Poe’s stories were certainly gruesome, but the elegance of his writing allowed readers’ imaginations to do most of the work. Director James McTeigue only does utilizes the unseen on occasion, instead favoring some Saw-esque visuals more accustomed to the torture porn genre. They felt a bit unnecessary, almost as if they were tacked on in the silly hope of drawing gore fans out to an Edgar Allan Poe thriller.
An “Edgar Allan Poe thriller”? Is that a thing? No, not really, but that’s the hook of The Raven. We get to watch the greatest mystery writer of all time try to solve a real mystery! What could go wrong with that?
It turns out: plenty. First off, the mystery is far from original. It could have popped up on any number of the TV crime serials on right now (without Poe, of course). There’s not a lot of interest other than discovering who did it, and our protagonist is far from the charismatic Richard Castle or Seeley Booth.
Poe is a rather pathetic character in The Raven. He yells a lot, drinks a lot, and does a lot of drunken wandering about—while yelling. Cusack plays him with a chip on his shoulder that would have been interesting to develop in a less bloody movie, but this one doesn’t care too much about the real Poe.
The filmmakers make a couple of superficial nods to authenticity. We learn in “The Raven Guts”—a 13-minute making-of featurette—and “The Madness, Misery, and Mystery of Edgar Allan Poe”—a quick, ten-minute look at Poe’s true history—that Cusack lost 25 pounds for the movie to better resemble the skinny writer in his final days. Also, Cusack made it a point to incorporate language from Poe’s letters and poems into the script.
It’s too bad not all of the language rings true. Mixing modern lingo (namely idioms) with Poe’s prose was a poor choice by screenwriters Ben Livingston and the aptly named Hannah Shakespeare. They didn’t elevate their own words to meet his, nor did they lower his language to meet their own. It comes off as choppy, inauthentic mix.
Cusack’s stoic, loud performance doesn’t help much, either. His voice is hoarse, and he repeatedly uses it to yell insults, pleas, or accusations again and again. And again. And again. It gets old pretty fast, and as much as I love the Chicago-born thespian, he doesn’t put his best face forward in this one.
Whether Poe was a drunk jerk in real life or not means little (the special features provide reasoning for both), considering most of the exposition in the first third of the film seems to direct the audience towards a specific ending. I, at least, thought I knew who the murderer was after the first few moments of the film. For the next third, I rather enjoyed seeing how they were going to get there, even if flaws in my theory were eventually drove it into the ground.
I was glad the story wasn’t terribly predictable, but the ending supplanting the one I imagined wasn’t any better. I’m not saying mine was at Poe’s level, but the writers should have spent a bit more time deeply peering into that darkness, standing there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before. That, and that alone, would have been suitable for an Edgar Allan Poe story.