John Cusack goes goth in The Raven

By Matthew Singer 04/26/2012

The Raven
Directed by James McTeigue
Starring: John Cusack, Luke Evans, Brendan Gleeson, Alice Eve, Oliver Jackson-Cohen  
Rated R for bloody violence and grisly images
1 hr. 51 min.

The life of Edgar Allan Poe is long overdue for a big-budget biopic: Opium-addled, alcoholic writers of macabre fiction who died mysteriously generally make good film subjects. (Indeed, Sylvester Stallone, of all people, has been talking about directing one for years.) The Raven isn’t particularly interested in illuminating the author’s life, though it does fixate on the “mysterious death” part. As the introductory text tells us, in October 1849, Poe was found on a park bench in Baltimore, delirious and in dire need of medical attention. He expired before he could tell anyone what happened to him, and all medical records regarding his death have since been lost. Theories abound as to what killed him; my favorite is that he was the victim of cooping, a practice in which political parties would abduct people off the street, drug them, then send them out on Election Day to vote for their candidate at multiple locations.

In The Raven, director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) and screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare posit a theory of their own: that Poe spent his final days frantically searching for his fiancee, who’d been kidnapped by an obsessed fan committing murders based on Poe’s work and leaving clues on the bodies, while also blackmailing him into writing fictionalized accounts of the killings in the local newspaper.

Somehow, I find the cooping story much more believable.

OK, so The Raven isn’t exactly aiming for historical plausibility. Nothing wrong with that, in and of itself, but considering the legitimately bizarre circumstances surrounding Poe’s demise, filling in the missing details with a sub-Fincherian game of catch the serial killer feels like a wasted opportunity. It’s a case of speculative truth being better than Hollywood fiction. Just reading Poe’s Wikipedia entry is infinitely more fascinating. For instance, did you know that after Poe’s death, his chief literary rival, a guy by the name of Rufus Griswold, somehow became the executor of his estate, and went on to publish a largely fabricated biography that promulgated the still-enduring, allegedly false image of Poe as a raving, drug-addicted lunatic? There is a character named Griswold in The Raven, but he quickly ends up a corpse, in a grisly re-enactment from The Pit and the Pendulum in which McTeigue splatters the screen with buckets of CGI plasma. It could be the director extracting symbolic revenge on Poe’s behalf, but then, the filmmakers don’t seem particularly concerned with correcting its subject’s loony legacy: They give the dude a pet raccoon, for crying out loud.

As it is, The Raven is mildly entertaining, at best. The notion of Edgar Allan Poe playing a drunken Sherlock Holmes is audacious enough that it should carry a lot of the movie on its own, but the curious casting of John Cusack in the lead is yet another blown opportunity. As Poe, Cusack certainly looks to be having fun, delivering shouted rants laced with old-timey insults, but he never convinces as the down-and-out poet laureate of the lurid; even with his flour-pale skin and jet-black goatee, he still looks like Lloyd Dobler, albeit if Dobler listened to the Cocteau Twins rather than the Clash. The role calls for an actor capable of truly chomping down on the 19th century scenery; Willem Dafoe probably would have turned the film into a crazy blast. Hell, get Nic Cage and a pound of actual opium and you’d come away with a deranged classic.

Then again, McTeigue’s directorial style doesn’t leave enough room for a truly balls-out performance, anyway. As anyone who’s seen V for Vendetta or — heaven forbid — Ninja Assassin knows, he’s a showoff, and his camerawork is no less flashy here: Did we really need one “follow a bullet as it leaves the chamber” shot, let alone two? It’s all needless, and just gets in the way of whatever little intrigue Livingston and Shakespeare’s bland whodunit holds. Here’s a sentence you don’t read every day: Let’s hope Stallone eventually gets his Poe movie made. It couldn’t be much worse.

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