Failures don’t get any nobler than The Raven, a rather awful film that tries with all its might to be great. We root for it every step of the way, for it aspires to the extraordinary and seemingly has the tools to get there. Watching it utterly fail to capitalize on its potential – despite the heroic efforts of everyone involved – hurts all the more because we empathize with the effort so deeply. If you shoot for the moon and miss, it’s a long way down. The Raven gives us a front-row seat to the plummet.
Literary aficionados must salivate at the thought of Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) taking the role of one of his fictitious detectives on the hunt for a serial killer. The concept brims with possibilities, of which director James McTeigue is well aware and strives with all his might to realize. The killer, a stalker fan of Poe’s, bases his murders on the author’s famous stories: a locked-room death for “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” a walled-up victim for “A Cask of Amontillado,” one poor sod (a critic no less) given a personal look at the pit and the pendulum, etc. The police summon Poe – alcoholic and destitute – to help them catch the killer. The stakes rise when Poe’s fiancé (Alice Eve) is abducted and threatens to join the list of the dead.
The Serbian locations make an excellent stand-in for 19th century Baltimore, especially when McTeigue adds twisting mists and the uniquely Gothic atmosphere of October weather. Fact and fiction merge as we watch Cusack stumble despondently along the thoroughfare, mediating on the cruelty of the universe while slowly drinking himself to death. But as the plot grinds forward, both the atmosphere and marvelous Seven-style premise quickly fall apart.
Much of the difficulty lies in the presentation of each set piece, as ponderous set-ups and clumsy execution rob the structure of its wit. The Raven explains too much too soon, then delays the pay-off until all the coolness has been leeched away. Its clumsiness compounds the fact that each scene lacks any dramatic timing. The concepts feel half-realized, with uneven development and concepts more powerful in the abstract than the concrete. With the exception of the pit and the pendulum bit (which carries a fine sense of the grotesque), they uniformly fail to deliver the requisite punch… and in a few late cases, actively invoke derisive laughter.
The larger storyline struggles with the same problems. The investigation plods forward rather than elegantly leading us, and the characters connect the dots far too easily to sell us on the grand mystery. The filmmakers struggle with real-life aspects of Poe added to the mix, particularly the questions surrounding his final days and his fixation on frail, doomed women. It all comes to a dreadful head when the killer is finally revealed: a moment that evokes neither the expected shocks nor any sense of satisfaction
Which brings us to Cusack, at once the most fascinating and frustrating aspect of the entire film. He certainly looks the part, and his signature combination of intelligence and snark fits well with Poe’s fatalistic genius. But as bravely as he attacks the role, he also overplays his hand too often: his manic bouts become hammy rather than haunting. A more disciplined structure might have helped, but without solid backing from the plot, he’s left to sink or swim (mostly sink) alone.
The best one can say for The Raven is that it makes one hunger for the grand old Vincent Price productions of the 1960s, or better yet, curl up with some of Poe’s original works. Its failure on its own terms becomes more sad than enraging, a marvelous concept engineered by people who want nothing more than to do right by it. They meant so well, they tried so hard, and we mourn that misspent energy as much as they do. That grants it a strange sort of honor… though it doesn’t make the act of sitting through it any less of a chore.