Review: The Raven

'Entertaining and fun to be sure. But it's not nearly as chilling as reading Poe's stories for yourself.'

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


True! Nervous. Very, very dreadfully nervous I had been, and am.

On a gloomy day in 1849, Edgar Allen Poe was found, dying, on a park bench in Baltimore, MD. He had been missing, reportedly, for several weeks before this point. On that park bench, Poe was very drunk, delirious, and raving about someone named Reynolds. According to a witness, his last words were “Lord help my poor soul.” Some posit that he died of alcoholism, as he was a notorious drunk who would fly into garish and demonstrative raves. Some new theories, however, postulate that he was perhaps the victim of rabies. James McTeigue's new thriller, The Raven, however, imagines a new event in Poe's life during those missing few weeks: Evidently, Poe had, unbeknownst to most historians and scholars, teamed up with the Baltimore police department to track down a mysterious serial killer who had been modeling his murders on the events in Poe stories. One man is killed by a bladed pendulum. Another wears a black robe as a masque. Hm…

Um… I'm not sure how I feel about this premise. I mean, an investigative thriller set in Baltimore 1849 would have had plenty of literary significance and could have works on its own merits, but to turn Poe (played by an intense John Cusack) into a supercop hero of speculative fiction, well, that smacks of cynical pop culture repurposing to me. The Raven was clever about how it worked some of the known facts about Poe's life into its own completely fictionalized story, but I don't quite buy Poe as a deputy who poked through real human corpses, and gave his opinions to a stern-faced investigator (Luke Evans) who looked on. Of course, this bizarro alter-world version of Poe did lead to one entertaining scene wherein he, while waxing poetic to himself, idly dissected a human heart on his writing desk. He then, in a moment of pique, tossed the remains of the human heart to his pet raccoon, which gleefully began devouring it. I don't think Poe ever had a pet raccoon to which he regularly fed human organ meat. The moment is absurd, and joyfully bizarre.

The Raven also ramps up actual history by providing Poe with a hot blonde babe as a girlfriend. Poe's actual romances are a tragic tale in themselves, and involve young cousins and harsh rejections. In the world of The Raven, though, Poe was engaged to the fictional Emily Hamilton (the incredibly pretty Alice Eve), with whom he had a clever and comforting banter. Emily is a shiny, goddess-like counterpoint to Poe, and, perhaps, fits a little too conveniently into his life. Then, for second half of the film, Emily becomes a mere damsel in distress. Emily's father (Brendan Gleeson) does little more in the film than berate her for seeing Poe, and then disapproving of Poe to his face.

Despite the farfetched premise, though, and the serious fudging of historical facts, The Raven is actually a stylish and spirited film. McTeigue, who had previously directed V for Vendetta, has a busy and dank aesthetic flair that only occasionally threatens to overwhelm the material. He does tend to fetishize the violence and blood, but that will only please the Goth kids this film was clearly made for. What's more, Cusack himself really digs his teeth into the part, turning Poe from a dull sullen overgrown Byronic adolescent, into a passionate and temperamental man who seems haunted my melancholy, but moreso crippled by alcoholism. Poe was, after all, an infamous drinker, who would con people out of drinks, would gamble incessantly, and possessed just about every vice known in 1840s America. It's that wounded man that Cusack is tapping into. The one extrapolated from letters. Poe, rather wisely, is not made into a romantic superbeing himself.

Scholars of Poe might have a little wiggly fun with the references (the film quotes Poe with a fanboy's fervor), but will be equally put off by the historical-fiction setup. The Raven is entertaining and fun to be sure. But it's not nearly as chilling as reading Poe's stories for yourself. That particular raven, if I may quote and do some repurposing of my own, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting on the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door. And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming. And the lamplight o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor. And my soul, from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor, shall be lifted – nevermore.