"The Raven"stars John Cusack in a gothic thriller pulled from the tales of Edgar Allan Poe that regrettably falls prey to its grand and grisly ambitions — it's neither grand nor grisly enough to seriously satisfy Poe-ish cravings for murder, mystery and literary allusions.
More pulp fiction than macabre masterpiece, it is nevertheless a nifty idea screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare have concocted for director James McTeigue ("V for Vendetta"). Imagine a serial killer in 19th century Baltimore suddenly replicating Poe's stories, the murders mimicking those in "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," among others. He's also leaving cryptic taunts behind for the writer that offer up a lethal game of cat and mouse. Will Poe play?
The detective on the case, one Emmett Fields (an excellent Luke Evans), has read and remembers enough of Poe to quickly make the connection. Soon he's enlisted the irascible alcoholic wordsmith to join him in sleuthing things out. Unfolding in Poe's last days, the film also tries to solve the riddle of the poet's mysterious death at 40.
Letting Poe watch his work come to horrific life is the conceit that drives the action. He's not all that interested until fiancée Emily (Alice Eve) is snatched with the killer demanding more stories from Poe as a ransom, essentially forcing him to spend the rest of the movie desperately writing his way out of a series of dilemmas. Oh that the screenwriters could have as well.
What's missing in the movie is the tightly constructed tension-building that Poe did so unsettlingly and inventively well. When one scene features Poe holding a reading for some of the city's bookish bunch, it is a reminder of just how powerful his prose could be. "The Raven," in contrast, has some momentary flourishes and a few harrowing moments, but nothing to tie things together with all the fear and loathing that made the author such an original.
What is both ambitious and grand is the film's stylish look. McTeigue, working with director of photography Danny Ruhlmann, is only getting better at creating richly textured environments for his characters. He's traded the futuristic London dystopia he mined in "V for Vendetta" for the dark cobblestone streets of Baltimore circa 1849, with Budapest and Belgrade subbing in.
Veteran costume designer Carlo Poggioli ("Cold Mountain"), who worked with McTeigue on "Vendetta," does a bang-up job giving Poe something of an updated Shakespearean look with clothes that complement Cusack's goatee and have a kind of drama as Poe rushes from one crime scene to another. A costume ball hosted by Emily's father (Brendan Gleeson) is so wonderfully and darkly over the top it is almost worth the price of admission, almost.
"The Raven" is a talky film filled with lots of rambling discourses for Cusack, which the actor handles well enough. It's the mishmash of competing issues and emotions that the character is weighed down with that trips things up. Sometimes Poe is raving mad, as the poet was said to be near the end of his short life, and sometimes he's stone-cold sober, putting his intellect to the task. But it all feels rather random. As for the romance, Poe's and the fiancée's flirtations are as deadly as anything the killer serves up.
The film is at its best when Det. Fields is on the case. Evans brings a crispness and focus to Fields that makes the ludicrous believable rather than laughable. It's not enough to solve all of "The Raven's" problems, but it helps.