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There have been many fictionalized movie accounts of historical figures lately. Last year we learned “the truth” about William Shakespeare in Anonymous and we will soon see Abraham Lincoln battle vampires in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Now we have the fun of John Cusack hamming it up as Edgar Allen Poe in the gothic mystery The Raven.
In 1849, Poe is a penniless writer who enjoys a drink. He is unable to pay his bar tab and struggling to even get published in the Baltimore Patriot. He is also about to be engaged to the very beautiful Emily (Alice Eve) against her father‘s (Brendan Gleeson) wishes.
Then murder most foul stalks the streets of Baltimore when a killer starts using Poe’s stories as inspiration. A young police detective, Inspector Emmett Fields (Luke Evans), is in charge of the investigation and recruits Poe’s help. But the stakes are upped when the killer kidnaps Emily and demands that Poe write about his murders if he wants to save Emily’s life.
The Raven is the first movie to be made by James McTeigue without the Wachowski Brothers. He showed promise with V for Vendetta but dipped when he directed reshoots for The Invasion as well as the action movie Ninja Assassin. With The Raven, McTeigue attempts a Tim Burton-style gothic horror mystery within a historical framework, but it comes off more as a cross between the Hughes Brothers’ adaptation of From Hell, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and the Doctor Who episode “The Unicorn and the Wasp.”
McTeigue shows signs of an action-movie hangover; CGI bullets fly in air, CGI blood splatters in your face and the killer in his cloak and hat looks very much like V and is capable of extraordinary physical feats. He does give us a visually striking movie that is rich in a period detail with a dark look throughout. The Raven is a very fast-paced movie that does not allow boredom to settle in, but it is too stylized for its own good.
As a story, The Raven could easily have been set in the modern day — it nothing from its 19th Century setting. It could have easily have been a movie about a crime novelist who is jaded or struggling for inspiration and a serial killer who uses his/her stories to conduct crimes. That is just a possibility. The idea of using Poe and his poems is more a way of giving the movie more legitimacy and they are recognizable stories, even to people who have not read them.
Cusack is entertainingly bad in The Raven, giving us an over-the-top, Nicolas Cage-esque performance. He is wonderfully miscast as Poe, a man who is meant to be grief-stricken, confrontational and a romantic. He’s also intelligent with Sherlock Holmes levels of deduction. He has little chemistry with Eve and Evans was his opposite, giving a very understated performance. Generally the whole movie was miscast.
There are moments of unintentional comedy in the movie as well. Sometimes it is from Cusack yelling in full literary speaking mode, other times it’s the police’s willingness to use violence or the killer’s near superhuman abilities. These moments, topped with Cusack’s performance, make The Raven surprisingly entertaining in a way that the filmmakers likely did not attend.
It is obvious that McTeigue and the writers were trying to make their own version of Sleepy Hollow, but it ended coming across more like From Hell. It is not a terrible movie, but it’s at least watchable — more of a noble failure then anything else.