On the morning of April 20, I listened to “The Writer’s Almanac” as Garrison Keillor intoned, “It was on this day in 1841 that the first detective story was published: ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ by Edgar Allan Poe.” Realizing that The Raven would hit theaters in a matter of days, I wondered whether the timing was a sign the filmmakers really knew what they were doing, or pure coincidence. Well, I have my answer. Nobody involved with this movie had the slightest clue what they were doing.
That certainly is true of screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, whose idea it was to reimagine the author as an action hero. Their script takes as its starting point the historical fact that Poe was found wandering the streets of Baltimore raving incoherently on October 3, 1849, and died days later. The pair works backward from there, purporting to show us what Poe did during the days leading up to the third and thereby to explain his peculiar state.
Their solution to the mystery? Crime fighting. Local police are baffled when a series of killings turn out to be copycat murders inspired by Poe’s stories, and they seek the writer’s assistance in tracking down the madman responsible. Of course, this doesn’t make a lick of sense — having concocted the fictional crimes wouldn’t give Poe an advantage in figuring out who’s imitating them in real life. Unfortunately for audiences, though, that’s far from the film’s biggest problem.
A bigger problem is that Poe is played by John Cusack. Hello? Poe was barely 5-foot-8. The actor is 6-foot-3. And whose idea was the goatee? Cusack gives the most embarrassing performance of his career, fumbling from one poorly written scene to another. One minute he’s doing his impression of a drunken genius; the next, giving us Poe the great lover; and then, most absurdly of all, chasing a suspect on horseback while firing gunshots into the Baltimore fog. Did I mention they make him wear a cape?
Luke Evans hams it up as police inspector Emmett Fields. It’s he who makes the connection between the gruesome crimes and Poe’s plots and recruits the writer to aid in his investigation. Alice Eve plays Emily Hamilton, a golden-tressed young heiress (she appears still to be in school) with an improbable thing for the by-this-time washed-up 40-year-old opium addict and alcoholic. We aren’t forced to tolerate her lack of acting talent long. Shortly after one of Poe’s colleagues is given the “Pit and the Pendulum” treatment, she’s kidnapped during a masked ball thrown by her father and imprisoned in a casket under the bad guy’s floorboards, à la “The Premature Burial.”
What has any of this got to do with “The Raven,” Poe’s timeless poem? Not a thing. Among the other questions raised by this dreary costume train wreck: What sort of bet did the great Brendan Gleeson lose to get him within a mile of the movie? And who is the feeble-minded filmmaker posing as V for Vendetta director James McTeigue? There’s simply no way the creator of that picture created this one. (Unless he skied into a tree between projects. But I feel confident we would have heard about that on TMZ.) Never mind the goatee and the cape — whose bright idea was it to give Poe a pet raccoon? I’m not making this stuff up.
Regrettably, however, someone did. What that person and the gifted artists who agreed to help bring the vision to fruition were thinking is beyond me. This is such goofball nonsense that it could’ve been good fun presented in the proper spirit, but there’s nothing camp or tongue-in-cheek about the film. Movies simply do not get more ham-handed and hackneyed than this. Somewhere, Edgar Allan Poe is spinning in his grave. And somewhere, the folks who dole out Razzies are taking note.