Good heavens, there has been such an uproar of Poe purists over such an amusingly silly thriller! You’d think someone’s grandmother’s honor was being sullied by the very existence of The Raven—even though there’s absolutely no reason to believe that the film is intended in any way to be anything other than a fictional work featuring a real person. This is neither a biopic, nor revisionist hoo-ha like last year’s Anonymous. Oh, sure, a certain part of the populace will take it as the “real story” of Edgar Allan Poe rather than speculative fiction about his final days. These, however, are the same folks who continue to believe that the footage at the beginning of the dismal Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake was news footage and that Forrest Gump was a documentary. If movies start being made safe for that crowd, I fear for the future of film even more than I already do.
What we have here is John Cusack (with an un-Poelike goatee) as Poe during the last few days of his life. This is a down-at-the-heels alcoholic, drug-addicted Poe (reasonably true), but with his wit and faculties intact. Poe is also joined by his pretty young sweetheart, Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve, She’s Out of My League), and her disapproving papa (Brendan Gleeson). That last is nonsense, but the plot needs it. The point of it all is that a serial killer has started a wave of murders that are based on the murders in Poe’s stories, causing the police to call him in to help solve the crimes. It soon becomes obvious that the killer is playing a demented game with Poe—one that, not surprisingly, puts the writer’s detecting skill to the test by requiring him to save Emily’s life. Some of it works well. Some of it doesn’t work so well.
On the plus side is Cusack’s pleasant performance. He may not be an authentic Poe, but he’s an enjoyable one—and almost certainly nearer the mark than the rather humorless character who usually passes for Poe in the movies. The recreations of Poe’s stories are sometimes clever, and there are a couple of nice touches to “The Pit and the Pendulum” section, including Poe’s own surprise at finding the counterweight heavier than he’d envisioned. It also gets in a neat dig at Poe’s nemesis, Rufus Griswold, by having him be the victim (historical tosh, of course) and pleading for his life by whining, “I’m only a critic.” The “Masque of the Red Death” business is fine, though it inevitably calls to mind the sequence in Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera (2004), and just as inevitably looks kind of cheap by comparison. All in all, though, the evocations of the stories are good.
What doesn’t work so well is the detective story itself. By the time the film gets around to revealing who the murderer is, the probability of you still caring seems very small to me. Even more slight is the idea that the identity will satisfy you. It’s so out of left field, so preposterous, and such an otherwise minor character that I, for one, would have been just as happy had it been someone we’d never seen before. Let’s just say, I enjoyed the trip getting to the solution well enough, but was seriously underwhelmed by this aspect of the movie. Would I recommend The Raven? That depends entirely on how seriously you insist on taking it. If you take it as agreeably macabre nonsense, yes, you might enjoy it. (But get out of the theater quickly to avoid the ghastly and inappropriate song over the credits.) If you’re going to have a conniption fit over every historical inaccuracy, however, give it a pass. Rated R for bloody violence and grisly images.