The final known days of Edgar Allan Poe are...reinvented, perhaps is the word?...in The Raven; a modernized twist on the classic author that seems kind of like a cash in on the success of the recent Sherlock Holmes updates. One part horror tale, another part prime-time murder mystery, The Raven offers John Cusack as the legendary author and more references to Poe's work than you can shake a stick at.
The film opens with a title card explaining how Poe was found ill on a Baltimore park bench in 1849, and states that much of what occurred in his final days is "a mystery." That's about the only tie to reality, so anyone expecting a Poe biopic should steer elsewhere. This isn't the first film Poe had been fictionalized and tied in with his work - for example, Jeffrey Combs got to play the tortured artist in a Masters of Horror episode for Stuart Gordon - but The Raven certainly works to cover as much of Poe's work as possible while telling the tale of a copycat killer who fashions his crimes after Poe tales. Many of Poe's most famous stories are involved, though the story mostly just refers to them and doesn't re-enact many parts of Poe's macabre visions.
The plot is catchy enough, though there's little depth to the script and I would have liked a little more focus on the crimes and a little less of Cusack and the police inspector played by Luke Evans playing Poirot. It's a repetitive game - body, clue, chase, repeat - that is most interesting when the Poe tales that inspired the murder are relayed by the distraught author. The chase scenes are effective enough - there's a lot of pounding music and some fine camerawork whenever the action picks up - and the film doesn't skimp on the violence (even if it does often settle for computer-generated blood).
The cast do what they can to salvage the simple tale, and are probably the film's biggest asset. Cusack is fine in the lead, though there are some moments where the snarky angst we've come to expect from his comedic roles shines through and takes the film to a modern place. Evans is a nice addition, an actor who seems somewhere between Orlando Bloom and Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the "I'm young and have slick hair and maybe I can act" scale, growling plenty of lines that add to the tension when the chase picks up and playing off Cusack well. The gorgeous Alice Eve (She's Out of My League is still one of the rare romcoms I can dig, so I salute her) shines as the woman Poe desires, as does Brendan Gleeson as her disapproving father. None of the performances are great, or even very good, but they all fit into the roles that the film requires and no one is out of place. A misstep in casting could have sunk the film entirely, but these four leads all meet expectations.
Director James McTeigue, who once wowed me with V for Vendetta, takes charge of the production, though the pacing feels a little bit off to me. I have to wonder if there was some control taken out of his hands before the final cut was approved, because there are times when The Raven just doesn't flow quite like I'd expect it to. The film all builds up to a final reveal that is frankly a disappointment, though the film's biggest problem might be that there was nothing in the script that could lead to a satisfying ending. If you have a murder mystery that focuses primarily on four or five characters - and if you are shown that none of them are the killer by the final act - you're setting the viewer up to scoff at what you do reveal.
The Raven is watchable and entertaining enough, but there's really little that stands out about it. Those with a knowledge of Poe - I hate that I have to type that, because I'm implying that there are poor souls who don't know the writer's dark masterworks - will find some enjoyment in the nods to his life and works, yet that and a serviceable cast are about the only reasons to recommend this movie. Fans of powerhouse actors in period mysteries - think From Hell or those recent Holmes flicks - could enjoy The Raven in passing. The more I think about the movie, the more I think I might have enjoyed it a tiny bit too. Yet it mostly made me want to read some Poe or watch some of the beloved Poe adaptations that Roger Corman produced in the '60s. If the best a movie can do is inspire you to find something better, I can't get entirely behind recommending it.