John Cusack tries being Poe. He fails.
In 19th century Baltimore, disgraced author Edgar Allen Poe (John Cusack) suddenly finds himself embroiled in a terrible mystery as a serial killer starts using his stories as inspiration for a series of horrible crimes. Challenged to a game of wits by the killer, he must solve the mystery to save the life of someone he loves.
The Raven actually has a fairly decent concept – mixing the macabre stories of Poe with the unpleasant activities of a serial killer to craft a tension-filled mystery. It’s just a shame the finished film fails to deliver on any of this promise.
First and foremost, that’s down to the woeful miscasting of almost everyone involved. The film was originally set up with Ewan McGregor as the tortured writer and Jeremy Renner as the cop who assists in the investigation, while Joaquin Phoenix had already passed. When a former ponytailed Jedi Knight and a guy who let another man shit on his head on camera say no to your movie, warning bells should sound.
Cusack is simply not Edgar Allen Poe. He never sells the tortured soul for a moment, sometimes relishing the wordiness of the script then sinking back into a funk. And whoever suggested that he had the makings of an action hero should be struck with some unfortunate disease. The rest of the cast is no better, Luke Evans lacks the gravitas for the role (his introduction with a low slung hero shot is almost laughable, forcing the eye to seek out the actual star) and Alice Eve’s obsession with the author is nonsensical. Brendan Gleeson, ridiculous accent aside, seems well suited by comparison.
Then there’s director James McTeigue, who made a surprisingly effective debut with 2005s V for Vendetta then delivered the frankly stupid Ninja Assassin. The man’s visual sense is finely tuned, honed through years of second unit directing, but he seems flummoxed by how to cope with the pacing of a feature.
The film is at its best when McTeigue and co are setting up some nasty murder, like the vivid retelling of Poe’s Pit and the Pendulum. The director’s penchant for flowing capes in slow motion is put to good use here and the gore is memorably realised, even though the over reliance on CG brings to mind the most offensive moments of Ninja Assassin.
Elsewhere, it’s a dramatic dud. Poe does little to save his fiancée, as the film never really makes a strong enough connection between the subjects of his stories and the actual murders – making the investigation pointless. Our protagonist is forced to recount the tale of the manhunt in a local newspaper but these stories are fabricated and fanciful, at odds with the real imprisonment which we are shown at length. The eventual reveal of the villain is poorly executed as well – showing us a character which the narrative gave us no chance to guess.
Edgar Allen Poe was a tortured soul, a powerful writer consigned to critiquing other authors to earn enough to survive who eventually drank himself to death at the age of 40. Cusack makes him a mildly surly wordsmith, a charmer who bags an attractive young fiancée and keeps a cute racoon as a pet. Sheesh.