John Cusack’s career has been a bit of a roller coaster ride. Once the adorable Eighties heartthrob of classics like Say Anything… and Better off Dead, he eventually grow up and segued into a mix of big-budget crowd-pleasers of a questionable quality (2012) and indie passion projects that have become cult classics (High Fidelity, Grosse Pointe Blank). Throughout all, his talent cannot be questioned; he’s a witty and naturalistic actor, oftentimes the best part of tripe, like…well, 2012. His height and brooding looks make him quite the sex symbol for the thinking girl. What better role for such an actor than in James McTeigue's The Raven as Edgar Allan Poe, an author renowned for his dark moods as much as his genius?
Once one gets over the shock of seeing Cusack in a period piece, one can fully appreciate his performance as Poe here. His tall frame and naturally sullen face are natural for skulking cape-clad through the streets of nineteenth-century Baltimore as one of the greatest Gothic writers. Director James McTeigue, best known for V for Vendetta, is a master of the stylishly dark, violent, and literary, so he is as good a match for the material behind the camera as Cusack is in front of it.
But what is that material, exactly? The screenplay for The Raven, written by Hannah Shakespeare and Ben Livingston, hypothesizes what happened in the days leading up to Poe’s mysterious death in 1849 at the age of forty. The author was found delirious and dying on the streets of Baltimore; what happened to him prior to that and what actually killed him remain unknown. The Raven’s version of Poe’s final days is, of course, far-fetched and ridiculous; yet the film itself is not without merit. Like Guy Ritchie’s two action-oriented takes on Sherlock Holmes, this Gothic horror that is loosely adapted from Poe’s own work is fun, well-acted, and possesses a great hook of a mystery at its core.
Poe as played by Cusack is nearly broke, having been unable to write anything of note for ages. He is an incorrigible alcoholic and immensely egotistical, yet that doesn’t dissuade the beautiful young socialite Emily Hawkins (Alice Eve) from falling in love with him. Poe and Emily plan to marry and start a new life together, but a sinister serial killer inspired by Poe’s writing has other plans. After committing two murders that mirror those out of Poe’s imagination, he kidnaps Emily and vows to kill her too—unless Poe will follow his trail of clues and write about it along the way. By doing so, the killer hopes that Poe will create his greatest masterwork, with the killer as his unlikely muse. Poe obliges, willing to risk anything for his beloved Emily. He is helped along the way by Baltimore Police Detective Fields, played by Luke Evans (who will portray Bard the Bowman in the upcoming Hobbit trilogy). Evans is a rugged, talented actor, a younger version of Cusack’s brooding intellectual; it is great to watch the two of them spar onscreen as they track down the killer.
The notion that Poe spent his final days playing detective is rather ludicrous, but the film is still enjoyable. The graphic violence definitely earns it a hard R, but if one isn’t too squeamish, one can really appreciate how vividly Poe’s most gruesome tales are illustrated as serial murders onscreen. Nightmare-inducing tales like The Cask of Amontillado and The Pit and the Pendulum are brought to life in ways that will haunt the viewer. The film is not exactly realistic, or subtle, or historically accurate in any way, but it does tell a delightfully morbid mystery of a tale—something that Poe himself could probably appreciate.
DVD SPECIAL FEATURES
The DVD and Blu-ray combo pack contains three versions of the film (standard, high-def, and digital download), spread out over two discs and accompanied by a great deal of behind-the-scenes bonuses. These include featurettes analyzing the music, the gruesome effects, and the man himself, Edgar Allan Poe. There are also deleted and extended scenes, a conversation between Cusack and McTeigue, and audio commentary by McTeigue and the producers.
"The Raven" is on sale October 9, 2012 and is rated R. Thriller. Directed by James McTeigue. Written by Hannah Shakespeare, Ben Livingston. Starring Alice Eve, John Cusack, Luke Evans.