James McTeigue’s The Raven, a thriller set in Baltimore during the last days of Edgar Allan Poe’s life, is a handsome-looking thing, with fairly grand period costumes and reasonably lavish sets. So much for production values: In every other way the picture is stiff and unyielding, hampered by a clumsy plot and diorama performances. The whole thing has the feel of a second-rate living-history exhibit.
John Cusack plays the beleaguered Poe, who hasn’t had a literary hit in a long time and doesn’t even have enough dough in his pocket to buy the good stiff drink he sorely needs: When the barkeep at the local watering hole refuses to serve him, he tosses a pile of coins and crumpled money on the bar, and there’s an old button mixed in there, too. Still, Edgar finds some solace in his romance with the pretty, vivacious Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), whose father greatly disapproves of the match. (It helps that he’s played by a gruff, grouchy Brendan Gleeson, taking his role only about as seriously as he needs to.)
Meanwhile, there’s something really ugly going down in Baltimore. A serial killer is offing his victims via grisly means clearly inspired by Poe’s stories: A mother and daughter suffer a throat cutting and a strangulation, respectively, a la "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." A critic (!) named Griswold – based on one of Poe’s real-life adversaries -- is slowly, excruciatingly bisected by a scary slicer thing right out of "The Pit and the Pendulum." Fields (Luke Evans), a young detective working on the case, appeals to Edgar to help him find the culprit. To complicate matters, the creep absconds with Emily and challenges Edgar to find her before she succumbs to the nasty death he’s got planned for her.
That’s not a terrible premise for a film, and The Raven at least offers the occasional spurting blood vessel of gruesome fun. Sometimes, though, it seems to aspire to be a sort of period Saw -- albeit a much tamer one – with a degree of sadism it really doesn’t need. McTeigue (who directed, seemingly a century ago, the adaptation of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta) is working from a script by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, and you can see he’s pedaling hard to keep the suspense level high: The Raven seems to be striving to jazz up Poe the way Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies tried – unsuccessfully – to capture the spark of Arthur Conan Doyle. Along the way, the plot wobbles off the rails too many times to count, particularly as the movie rattles toward its convenient wrap-up, but that isn’t even the major problem with it. It all could have worked, maybe – if only Cusack, as the frustrated, impoverished genius, weren’t so insufferable.
Cusack tries to turn Poe into a tragic crank, a man whose brilliance was sorely underappreciated by the masses, and even if the approach is believable enough, Cusack too often comes off as an imperious bore. He peers at the folk around him through those small, dark, glittering eyes; sometimes he condescends to them with that reluctant crinkle of a smile. Cusack has often been a marvelous actor – he was convincingly haunted in the 2007 Stephen King adaptation 1408 – but he makes a smug Poe, not a tortured one. It doesn’t help that the character keeps reminding everyone in the movie, and us, how brilliant he is. The real Poe was brilliant, and the literature he left behind elicits a particular type of delicate but bone-rattling shiver; no artist since has been able to match it. Do we really need John Cusack strutting around in a floaty cape, bellyaching about how the simpletons around him just don’t get his genius? Poor Edgar sure didn’t have it easy in life; the last thing he deserves is to be portrayed as a pompous ass.