Literary history and Hollywood go together like… well, like two things that go together particularly well. With the exceptions of perhaps Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson, writers lead notoriously uninteresting lives. Thoreau may very well have plucked the phrase “quiet desperation” from his own life to describe the life of your average writer. So, for Hollywood to attempt to mine the life of a writer – in this case, the godfather of American Horror, Edgar Allen Poe – for an early summer popcorn muncher, they must have something special on their hands.
Well, at least they have Poe and we, in turn, get “the Raven”.
John Cusack stars as Poe, who we first see as a bit of an abrasive and penniless boozehound, trying to wrangle brandy from a barkeep. The picture isn’t pretty. Drunk and in dire need of validation, Poe wanders out into the night. Meanwhile, in another part of ol’ Baltimore town, two women are found dead inside a locked room with no way for the assailant to escape – though miraculously, he had. The inspector leading the case (Luke Evans) recognizes the murder as something from one of Poe’s stories. After questioning the writer, they find out there is a killer using Poe’s work as inspiration for his handiwork and challenges both the writer and the detective to stop him.
And, to coin a phrase, the game is afoot.
Directed by James McTeigue, better known for stylish actioners like “V for Vendetta” or “Ninja Assassin”, “Raven” is a beautiful diorama of a movie: beautifully crafted surroundings for tiny wooden figures. It’s occasionally entertaining but only occasionally. More often, it is just frustratingly mundane and I’d be hard pressed to say where exactly the fault for that lies. McTiegue presents us this bleakish tale in a desaturated palate at a pretty even pace. Writers Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare give us and interesting concept and a mostly solid script.
Could it be the actors?
If I were to find any flaw with this film – and I most certainly did – I would find it with the actors. Cusack isn’t one of my favorite actors but I can’t really think of an occasion when I didn’t enjoy his work. And even here, I thought his work was good, but for some reason I just couldn’t get past him; I could only look at the screen and think, “That’s John Cusack in a fake beard.” For whatever reason, his performance just screamed John Cusack and not Edgar Allen Poe. And while some actors may be able to get away with that (Yes, I’m looking at you Mr. Connery); Cusack is not one of them. He also got no help from his female lead, Alice Eve. Many times, she seemed like not much more that a pallid mannequin in a pretty dress. Evans’ Inspector Field was generally inoffensive and feels like a distant cousin of Poe’s own C. Auguste Dupin by way of Patrick Warburton.
It should almost go without saying that one shouldn’t go see “the Raven” if you are looking for historical accuracy; as always, Hollywood plays fast and loose with the facts. It could almost be said that one should not see “the Raven” at all – almost – though if you choose to plunk down your hard earned cash for this, you may experience a “quiet desperation” of your own.