BY DAN BUSKIRK
At one point in the silly speculative fiction fantasy that is The Raven, a character is describing the town drunk Edgar Allan Poe. When he is asked about what kind of writing Poe contributes to the newspaper he replies, “Criticism, you know the easy kind.” Critics learn to take such passing jibes in stride, but you can see why The Raven’s writers are so touchy on the subject, at every turn their film is preposterous in ways sure to wake the film critic in everyone.
Not that the premise doesn’t promise some preposterous fun. Just slightly more ludicrous than the forthcoming Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, this high-concept thriller from the director of V for Vendetta could efficiently be pitched as “Edgar Allan Poe, Criminal Profiler.” Since Poe is often credited as the father of detective fiction, there’s a bit of historical thread on which to hang this idea, slender though it might be. One can imagine some pulpy fun might be made of the sullen drunk Poe being dragged from crime scene to crime scene but the filmmakers don’t bring much imagination to the idea, instead shoehorning Poe into the most pedestrian of serial killer dramas.
Things go wrong right out of the gate, starting with the casting of Lloyd Dobler, I mean John Cusack, as the cursed horror writer. Early casting hoped to snare the unpredictable Joaquin Phoenix, but John Cusack? There’s a reason Cusack has nailed a couple of iconic, goofy everyman roles in light comedies, that’s the type of presence he naturally exudes. This quality is about 180 degrees from the disturbed, Peter Lorre-type of energy we would expect the absinthe-addled, financially-troubled poet Poe to embody. Drunkenly lashing out at fellow bar patrons, the broad-shouldered Cusack looks too healthy and fit to channel the self-loathing despair the character is so sorely demanding.
So Cusack’s performance is a wash, but we can see early on that the film’s whiz-bangy super-hero tone isn’t going to take Poe too seriously anyway. Instead, the film is an action- mystery, with 19th century detectives enlisting Poe to help them stop a madman who is basing his murders in a “greatest hits” of Poe’s most ghoulish literary slayings. Just the film’s conception seems like it is a little under-impressed by Poe’s superior sense of the dramatic, they don’t trust Poe’s climaxes to deliver the goods, they’re instead going to use all his climaxes in one film. The script’s author’s, Hannah Shakespeare (how far the acorn has fallen from the tree) and actor and first-time screenwriter Ben Livingston, have not out-thunk the master, each of their police-barging climaxes build from nothing and advances solely through coincidence upon coincidence.
Shakespeare & Livingston’s tepid writing (which briefly comes to life when Poe quotes Poe) isn’t helped by McTeigues’ over-anxious direction. It is like he is so worried we might feel alienated by the period setting that he refuses to give the gaslight-era a leisurely moment. I lost faith with McTeigue early on when he botches the depiction of Poe’s most famous instrument of torture: the swinging blade of the pendulum. With no warning, we are thrust into the set-up just in time to watch the pendulum swing once before hitting its victim. Gone is the tick-tick-tick anticipation of the blade dropping closer and closer, it’s “bang!” Cue the C.G.I. blood and cut back to the detectives furrowed-brow. No possibility of drama survives un-quashed, and it seems cruel to point out that McTeigue was second-unit director on both the soul-sucking Matrix sequels as well as Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, one of the most ponderously bad blockbusters ever unleashed.
Throw in Poe’s weepy doomed romance with a blonde with perfect teeth and a vacuous fashion model charm (a flavorless Alice Eve) and you have a film that is not working on a lot of levels simultaneously. The only element that comes of unscathed is the location: Serbia and Budapest do a fine job of suggesting the Baltimore of the 1800s. The rain-swept eastern European locations hint at the morose atmosphere of Poe’s haunted work with a profound sadness nothing else in The Raven can approach.