The image of Edgar Allan Poe passed down to us is of a dour, pale and morbid drunkard, a poet haunted by lovers who died in his arms. But he also was a playful wordsmith, an eviscerating critic, a man fascinated by codes and fond of dissections. That's the Poe of The Raven, a fanciful, witty and suspenseful revision of Poe's last days that is more entertaining than it has any right to be.
Poe wore a mustache and his hair a little long. But John Cusack gives America's first great suffering artist an intellectual's (or pseudo-intellectual's) goatee, a cape and a lot of swagger, a cross between Lord Byron and Sherlock Holmes. The bottle is ever present, the debts to his bartenders ever pressing. But not to worry.
"Ill be as flush as a sultan by dawn."
Another poem, story or review is due to be published by the one Baltimore newspaper that will have him. He's not an easy fellow to tolerate, hurling insults of "Philistine!" and "mental oyster" at one and all.
No wonder the two-fisted Captain Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson, in fine fury) refuses to let his daughter (Alice Eve, beguiling as ever) marry this sharp-tongued wastrel. The fair Emily, Poe's previous muse, has other ideas.
Poe is broke, but he also is famous, he insists. He has invented detective fiction and the suspense thriller. The stories The Pit and the Pendulum, The Cask of Amontillado and The Tell-tale Heart have ensured his legend, and that poem about the black bird comes to mind every time we see such birds in the dingy skies above 1840s Baltimore (it's really Budapest and Belgrade).
Then people start dying. A pit-and-pendulum murder here, a victim possibly walled up in a sewer there. The detective (Luke Evans, in a bland performance) recognizes them. Somebody is imitating the deaths in Poe's fiction, and Detective Fields is "in dire need of your un-wholesome expertise." Not that Poe can be of much help.
Then the killer, in a way the gambler Poe must appreciate, ups the ante. There's a kidnapping. Clues among the murder victims will point to the correct story, the way the kidnap victim will die. Poe is trapped in a ticking-clock thriller of his own invention.
Cusack — in the most dashing, least introverted role of his career — is a delight, manic one moment, overwhelmed by regret in the next. "I've used up all my tricks," he sighs, depressed at the killer's "dreadful metaphors for life without hope, the death without purpose."
Director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) keeps the movie in motion, and as long as it's in motion, with Cusack scrambling, delivering zingers and showing panic at what his fervid imagination has created, it works. Dread and foreboding hang over the film, which has the look of a graphic-novel adaptation. There are dead spots in the narrative and dead weights in the cast (villain and cop are lacking), and the climax is anti-climactic.
But the script — peppered with Poe references (some of which have to be explained to the audience) — is fun, especially for Poe fans, who might be tempted to cast a jaundiced eye on this endeavor. Still, if the movies can give us H.G. Wells as a real time traveler (Time After Time) and Abraham Lincoln as a vampire slayer (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), why not a Poe who is a lover, a virile man of action, an amateur sleuth who sacrifices all for art and love?