'The Raven' is a strange mishmash of history and action

'The Raven' star John Cusack delivers a serviceable performance as famous writer Edgar Allan Poe.

Larry Horricks/Relativity Media/AP
'The Raven' actor Luke Evans (l.) manages to make scenes of exposition interesting that otherwise would have prompted eye rolls.

The titling of director James McTeigue’s Edgar Allan Poe thriller, The Raven, has no doubt confused plenty of would-be moviegoers ever since the film was first announced back in 2009. Instead of a retelling of Poe’s most famous poem, The Raven is actually a fictionalized narrative centered around the final days of the writer’s life – recasting Poe as a reluctant but brave hero that, along with a determined Baltimore detective, attempts to solve a string of grisly murders.

The re-imagined historical figures genre has become a new testing ground for Hollywood, most notably with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter on the horizon (FYI: Edgar Allan Poe makes a guest appearance in the novel), where writers can take household names – and put a new, and in theory more exciting, twist on what would otherwise result in stuffier true-life drama (i.e. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln biopic). As a result, does McTeigue’s The Raven offer both a fun spin on the last days of Edgar Allan Poe – while also delivering an exciting mystery story?

Unfortunately, the misleading confusing titling of The Raven is hardly the project’s biggest problem – as, despite a mostly competent (albeit sometimes campy) effort from both John Cusack (Poe) and Luke Evans (Detective Fields), the mystery narrative elements, as well as the respective kills, are surprisingly underwhelming. Many expectant moviegoers had been describing McTeigue’s Poe film as Se7en in 19th Century Baltimore but, sadly, The Raven lacks nearly all the aspects that made David Fincher’s serial killer film so captivating – i.e. jaw-dropping reveals, smart twists, and – despite loads of Poe stories to pull from – intriguing murder scenes are all in short supply.

As mentioned, The Raven follows the final days of Edgar Allan Poe’s life – presenting the tortured author as a self-absorbed and desperate social outcast whose work was still, at the time, mostly under-appreciated. The only glimmer of light in Poe’s impertinent existence is his furtive lover Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), the daughter of a retired Colonel and rich Baltimore socialite. However, when a brutal serial killer begins to dispatch victims, by recreating famous murders from Poe’s published stories, including “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” as well as “The Pit and the Pendulum,” the author is thrown into a malicious battle of wits – with life and death hanging in the balance.

Given how many of Poe’s “horror” mysteries have remained iconic staples of literary history, it’s shocking how quickly the film glosses over the few kill sequences that are included in The Raven. Only “The Pit and the Pendulum” delivers truly impactful, and grisly, on-screen action – with the rest of the murders rattling off one after another with hardly any build-up and uninspired on-site drama. However, even the “Pendulum” murder is void of compelling aftermath – since Poe (and the audience) is merely given the next “clue” as if it was an afterthought not an integral part of the current scene. Instead of presenting Poe and Fields as actual investigators on the trail of a serial killer (who walk into a room and actually deconstruct the scene) The Raven quickly devolves into watching the two chase after a shadowy murderer without stopping to let the audience enjoy the mystery as it unfolds piece by piece.

While moviegoers were initially skeptical of Cusack in the role of Poe – especially after Jeremy Renner, Ewan McGregor, and Joaquin Phoenix, had all been in talks at one point during pre-production – the Being John Malkovich (and 2012) star isn’t ultimately at fault for the film’s shortcomings. At first, Cusack over-does the tortured genius angle and actually makes the Poe “character” pretty unlikable (especially compared to a similar schtick from Robert Downey Jr as Sherlock Holmes); however, as the film’s murder plot takes hold, the actor backs-off from showcasing his practiced version of Poe and locks into a less ambitious, but more likable, approach – simply reacting to the various in-moment happenings. As a result, while the portrayal is campy and, at times, melodramatic, most audience members will likely be rooting for Poe as the film stumbles into the closing act.

Performances from the supporting cast is, similarly, a mixed bag – Eve as well as familiar faces that include Brendan Gleeson and Kevin McNally are competent enough and don’t distract from the core storyline. That said, none of their characters are nuanced or particularly interesting to watch – and only serve as mouths for exposition or goals/obstacles that Poe and Fields are expected to navigate. Only Evans manages to pull any above surface level emotion out of his character (which should be familiar territory for the actor given his solid work in The Immortals – which also featured a cast full of one-note characters). While Fields is still held hostage by the underwhelming story progression and boring scene work in The Raven, Evans emits just enough charisma in the role to successfully keep things going during a number of dialogue heavy scenes that would have otherwise been cause for eye rolling.

Ultimately, The Raven is just about what most pre-release cynics had been anticipating – a bizarre mishmash of historical elements and subpar on-screen drama capped off with an underwhelming but serviceable performance from John Cusack in the leading role. The project fails to impress at nearly every turn and, for a film with such a rich source material, offers very few surprises, intriguing twists, or interesting murder mayhem. While it’s easy to imagine some movie-lovers could enjoy the film when it hits cable, The Raven is never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting, And my soul from out that shadow that lies bored on the floor, Shall be interested – nevermore!

Ben Kendrick blogs at Screen Rant.

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