by Richard von Busack
Quoth the raven: this film sucks. In Raven (showtimes here) director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) includes an early scene of the disemboweling of an obese captive with Edgar Allan Poe’s infamous pendulum: “I’m only a critic! What did I do!” he screams. In Poe’s story of the fiendishness of the Spanish Inquisition, the victim escaped. Modern viewers aren’t so lucky.
Moments like this act of criticide suggest McTeigue was acting preemptively because he knew he had a dud on his hands. The script by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare is tripe, bolstered with easily Wikipediaed facts. During his last days of Poe’s life, a Baltimore police detective (Luke Evans) asks the impoverished author (John Cusack) to solve the mystery of a serial killer. The madman is copycatting situations from Poe’s own tales of mystery and the imagination.
Poe has a kind-of sort-of fiancé Emily (the blonde, splendidly built and really terrible Alice Eve) who is kidnapped and interred alive by a maniac; so Poe races against time deciphering the taunting clues. The basic idea is foolproof. And yet McTeigue makes a calamity out of it: sticky Fincheresque grisliness counter pointed by Cusack’s characterization of Poe as a suave, serio-comic preener, griping over his reviews and cadging drinks. Poe’s pride is always slightly silly. (It must be silly if they take him seriously in France, the movie suggests.) Cusack has to mutter Poe’s real-life accomplishments as asides: the time spent at West Point, the stories that aren’t referred to in the plot.
Poe was a wreck, wracked with grudges in those last days. But he was grandiose wreck, a celestial one: he was trying to pick up where the poet/philosopher Lucretius left off in “On The Nature of Things” with a project called Eureka.
Fairness requires mentioning a few mitigating factors in The Raven. Eve, reciting the poem “Annabel Lee,” is an actress trying hard. If you can’t applaud the result, you can compliment the effort. Brendan Gleeson, as Emily’s father, has a plausible accent and the authentic roughness of manner of an American of the end of the 1840s. In a scene at a fancy poetry salon, Cusack’s Poe does something unexpected: he finds a workable metaphor in a matron’s clumsy amateur poem and compliments it without being patronizing. The one sharp visual joke in a film bereft of them: the police seek an intruder at a masked ball dressed as The Red Death. False alarm: he’s a Catholic cardinal.
Still, McTeigue faces the author with a spirit of unsympathetic vulgarity. Poe was bloody but never vulgar. Cliche be damned, Poe suffered for his art.
The film crowns the misunderstanding Poe battled in his lifetime with an essentially insulting characterization of this writer.