I was sick — sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me. The sentence — the dread sentence of death — was the last of distinct accentuation which reached my ears.
— Edgar Allan Poe, “The Pit and the Pendulum”
Captain Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson) is upset. His daughter, the lovely Emily (Alice Eve) has fallen in love with the wrong man. The angry father lets loose loudly, calling the suitor a “raving alcoholic, opium addict, and atheist!” Alas, the captain can’t begin to win — for the man he means to disparage with such flimsy invective is none other than Edgar Allan Poe.
Make that a double alas, for dad. For as he’s played by John Cusack in The Raven, Poe is not only witty and ambitious, but also charming and mean, disparaging “overgrown mouth-breathers” who happen his way at the pub where he’s parked himself, hoping to get drunk. In addition, he’s a brilliant detective and something of an action hero. If such image-refitting is in vogue these days (see: Sherlock Holmes, or maybe, Abraham Lincoln as vampire hunter), it’s also linked in this film with a particular and rather notorious mystery, namely, the last four days of the real Poe’s life, the days before he showed up “near death” on a park bench near Baltimore.
The mystery is underscored here by an acrobatic overhead shot of a large raven perched on a tree branch over his head, caw-cawing as the author gasps his last. From here the film cuts back in time, to a crime scene, but of course. Detective Fields (Luke Evans) and his men bumble about the locked room where two bloody bodies have been discovered, marveling at the villain’s brutality and apparent ingenuity. That ingenuity soon finds a source, Poe’s stories (Fields puts it this way, “Your imagination is the inspiration for a heinous crime”). The fiend! These are exactly the very same stories he now rejects, as he means instead to produce — and especially, to be rewarded for — great art.
As tends to happen in such cases, Poe is frustrated by the demand for what his editor, Maddux (Kevin McNally), calls his “gripping stories,” the bloody ones. This frustration spurs his dipsomania, though both are alleviated on (convenient) occasion by his secret courting of Emily. When she sneaks out to thank him for “Annabel Lee” (his last poem), she recites to him with heavy breathing and then declares it “the most romantic thing I ever read,” meaning she invites him to undo her bodice and kiss her passionately on the divan. No matter that the poem is another of those “gripping stories,” full of death and abjection and fear. It grants the film its basic outlines, in which a terrible death will not separate two devoted lovers.
But first, the buddy bonding. Fields and Poe join forces to solve the crimes, involving pits and pendulums, a masked ball, a masked horseman, and a body stuffed into a sooty chimney. Emily becomes involved, by way of being kidnapped and locked up in a box under a floor. And so Poe becomes determined to thwart the monster, even if it means he must engage in one of those tedious games that serial killers always propose in the movies. In this case he has to figure out an escape for the victim and publish it in newspaper, as the killer-fan wants him to deliver one more great, gory story, like he used to. It’s like Poe’s stuck in Misery, without the hobbling.
The movie is stuck too. Even as it sets up to resist conventions, reimagining the troubled writer as ace detective, devoted paramour, and action hero, The Raven falls back on familiar tricks, not least being prurient spectacle and a series of unsurprising surprises (the masked horseman isn’t who he seems, the corpse behind the wall isn’t what it seems, etc.). Even as Poe-in-the-movie disparages such tricks, he becomes one, the erstwhile depressive drunk finds courage and strength, hauls out his firearm and rides his galloping steed, so that his last four days on earth look nothing like the rest of lifetime.
Initially Poe appears disinclined to deliver to these low expectations. He suffers multiple indignities and expresses multiple outrages — at the crass fans, the crass newspaper business, the generally reprehensible upper class (save for the wealthy girlfriend, so spunky and sexy), and the wages of aging, speeded along here by Poe’s years of self-abuse.
All this, the movie supposes, derives from his gravest disappointment, that he’s sold out — by developing his own particular art. Apparently the popularity of that art is his sticking point. This poses a problem for the movie, as it becomes that sticking point. To make a movie into its own object of analysis isn’t a bad dilemma to lay out, and it’s not unrelated to the one presented in director James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta, where the creation outstrips the creator in its effects, consumed and transformed and at last escaped, quite beyond the artist’s control.
But once posing this problem, The Raven abandons it, or maybe just succumbs to it. In this, it disregards a more complicated dilemma, that is, the vexing pleasures of crass entertainments, the relationship between immoral imagining and immorality, the correspondences of loving and stalking, even the sheer but not quite simple sensuality of a galloping horse. Poe might have struggled with all this. He might have been as mysterious as his legend suggests. But in The Raven, he’s not mysterious. He’s a trick.