Two agendas are at play here: the desire to tell a thrilling tale to explain the mystery of the poet’s final days and account for the fact that he was discovered on a park bench senseless and infirm shortly before dying and the necessity to draw in the Saw faithful by pushing the gory set pieces. In a nice echo of the predicament Poe found himself in often commerce rules over art and the potential of a dark character-driven mystery falls quickly by the wayside and what The Raven offers is a simple serial killer hunt, albeit bound to an intriguing man’s life.
Cusack’s Poe starts as a man broken under the stress of living up to his most famous works and acts out like a petulant child aping the very best of Nicolas Cage, only when we discover Poe’s secret love for Alice Eve’s Emily does he calm down and the narrative wheels find the tracks which will lead us through a very ordinary serial killer movie. Brendan Gleeson’s Colonel Hamilton, Emily’s overprotective father, stomps around like an angry bull while the impoverished Poe woos his daughter until she falls foul of the killer and is kidnapped. The two have to work together to find the maniac responsible… and so on.
You know each and every emotional beat already and the film doesn’t try to distract you by offering anything new or subversive, a strange play considering the creative fever of the man whose final days they are telling. The Poe-inspired deaths, there are pits and pendulums for example, are portrayed with the flimsiest context and appear to exist only to appease the gorehungry and provide some gruesome shots for the trailers; the serial killer thread is barely enough to carry us through the film and those craving a competent murder mystery will be sorely disappointed.
McT has a decent eye for building tension, the discovery of the first body is nicely handled, however there are too many lazy, confusing edits and tonal jolts to bring the story together and engage. Fatally for the film the script caters only to those who need every single nuance spoken aloud moments after becoming evident and who need a trail of narrative breadcrumbs force-fed to them. What good work is done by Cusack as the tortured artist running down his last days seeing his work clumsily brought to life against him is undermined by every facile spouting from the surrounding characters. It was head-in-hands stuff, believe me. The obvious, when stated and underlined, becomes trite and ruins what momentum the films builds.
Though manacled to mediocrity by a poor script Cusack is always interesting and he has fine support from Luke Evans as Detective Emmett Fields. Both try to wrench the film from its pedestrian moorings but are defeated as the mystery plays out to a baffling conclusion which runs the emotional heart of the story underfoot and reveals the by-the-numbers nature of this story.