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 Allen 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 a cradle-robbing 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 he did during the days leading up to the 3rd and thereby 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 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 being imitated wouldn’t give Poe any advantage in figuring out who’s doing the imitating 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’ 8”. The actor’s 6’ 3”. And whose idea was the goatee? Cusack gives the most embarrassing performance of his career, fumbling from one poorly written scene to the next, one minute doing his impression of a drunken genius, then giving us Poe the great lover and, most absurd 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. He makes the connection between the gruesome crimes and the plots from Poe’s work and then recruits the writer to aid in his investigation. Alice Eve plays Emily Hamilton, a golden tressed young heiress (she appears to still 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 a 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 trainwreck: What sort of a bet did the great Brendan Gleeson lose to get him within a mile of the movie? And who is the feebleminded 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 or something between projects. But I feel confident we would have heard about that on TMZ. Nevermind 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 they or the several gifted artists who agreed to help bring their vision to fruition were thinking is beyond me. This is such goofball nonsense 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 hamhanded and hackneyed than this. Somewhere Edgar Allen Poe is spinning in his grave. Somewhere the folks who dole out Razzies are taking note.