For many years now, Sylvester Stallone has talked about directing a film about Edgar Allan Poe. He wouldn’t star in it — last I heard, Robert Downey Jr. was the favorite — but a lot of onlookers have doubted heavily that the man who directed Stayin’ Alive could do justice to a complex figure like Poe. Well, The Raven has obligingly come along to make anything Stallone could come up with look austere and intellectual. The movie puts our embattled author — lord help his poor soul — at the center of a murder mystery wherein the killings mimic his stories. Even Stallone wouldn’t have had the hubris to have Poe riding a horse while firing a gun into the Baltimore fog, but this film does.
If you’re a Poe fan, you might enjoy such details as a reference to Poe’s ill-fated wife, the princely sum he was paid for his famous poem “The Raven” (nine dollars), and an explanation of why he said “Reynolds” on his deathbed; you might also enjoy seeing Poe’s nemesis Rufus Griswold, the critic who in real life lived to defame Poe after the latter’s death at age 40, unwillingly re-enacting “The Pit and the Pendulum.” But if you’re savvy enough to spot all these things, The Raven won’t be nearly enough to keep you awake. For one thing, serious Poe fans have read any number of Poe-as-detective stories and novels, and William Hjortsberg’s 1995 fiction Nevermore also concerned a murderer patterning his crimes after Poe’s work, though it was Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle, not Poe, on the killer’s trail. Now that would’ve made a much cooler film.
The Raven is coarse and stupid, pitched to the jocks in the audience despite all the chat about literature, with anachronistic profanities and turns of phrase, as when someone refers to himself as Poe’s “biggest fan.” The killer is disappointed that the drunk and disorderly Poe (John Cusack) has stopped writing tales of the grotesque and arabesque in favor of poetry and lit-crit, so he has kidnapped Poe’s sweetheart Emily (Alice Eve) and threatens to kill her unless Poe writes new stories about this ongoing case — in effect, becoming the killer’s collaborator. This premise sounds promising, but the execution is dullsville; it sorely needed a gothic sensibility like Tim Burton’s, but what it got was non-entity James McTeigue, who previously distinguished himself with V for Vendetta and Ninja Assassin. McTeigue has no apparent feeling for 19th-century America; a lot of it looks like cheap backlot or green-screen. This movie needs madness and delirium swirling around in it like fog, but all it has is fog.
If you’d told me twenty years ago that someday John Cusack would play Edgar Allan Poe, I’d have advised you to cut back on the nepenthe. But here he is, and he isn’t the problem with The Raven. He plays Poe as an arrogant elitist who knows how much he’s wasting his gifts and his life. He’s constantly broke and near-constantly drunk, though we see that he drinks to kill his pain. Cusack puts across the more objectionable bits of Poe’s personality, but as an actor he can’t help projecting decency and affability, so we perceive a tension between the mask Poe wears publicly and the wounded person underneath. Despite the dumb script he has to enact, Cusack seems to feel honored to play Poe, even in a lukewarm pastiche like this, and he commits himself.
If you like Cusack and Poe, my advice is to rent The Raven someday and tune everything else out. That includes the non-actress Alice Eve, who couldn’t convey gravity if you dropped her off a cliff, and the unimaginative score by Lucas Vidal, and the dull Heath Ledger clone Luke Evans as an inspector on the case, and the way one sequence evokes the terror of “The Masque of the Red Death” only to climax with some dude on horseback with a note. “The inventive or original mind,” wrote Poe in a glowing review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, “as frequently displays itself in novelty of tone as in novelty of matter.” The Raven displays neither.