Movie Review: Poe & Order: SVU

Edgar Allen Poe gets run through the grindhouse gears in the compellingly illogical The Raven.


In 1849 Baltimore, a serial killer is terrorizing the populace and taunting the police with crimes patterned after the macabre stories of Edgar Allen Poe (John Cusack). Inspector Emmett Fields (Luke Evans) is trying to salvage his reputation by catching the killer and involves Poe in the investigation due to the connection to his stories. Poe takes a personal interest in the case when the killer kidnaps Poe’s fiancee Emily (Alice Eve) and challenges Poe to a game of wits with Emily’s life as the prize. With time running out for Emily and the killer running out of stories to copy, Poe and Fields must jump huge hurdles of logic to track down their quarry.

The last few days of Edgar Allen Poe’s life are a mystery, as his is official cause of death, but it’s a good bet that didn’t involve navigating a plot that would have made Rube Goldberg jealous. Director James McTeigue and writers Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare have tried to turn Poe into an action hero in much the same way Guy Ritchie did with his Sherlock Holmes films. It makes sense in a way, since Poe is generally regarded as the first writer of detective fiction. However, McTeigue is no Guy Ritchie, Cusack is no Robert Downey, Jr., and The Raven is no Game of Shadows.

Sorry, sirs, but casting for Sherlock Holmes 3 hasn’t begun yet.

The film’s script is the first place to assign blame. It manages to be both over-written and thin at the same time, with a lot of grandiose speeches that have little purpose but to hide the film’s flimsy plot and weak characterization. The dialogue is wildly uneven as well, with Poe having the most dramatic, florid lines but Emily resorting to simple words and near-modern phrasing. Characters will shift between those two styles sometimes during a single scene. Eventually, though, the words become secondary to the film’s wildly convoluted plot, a ridiculous and increasingly illogical cat-and-mouse act seemingly borrowed from the remnants of the script for National Treasure: Quest for the Raven’s Tomb

McTeigue isn’t the right person to properly handle the concept, either. A skilled director could have taken the self-serious screenplay and made a campy, entertaining lark out of it. Unfortunately, we’re stuck with the guy who dulled-up V For Vendetta and gave us Ninja Assassin. McTeigue doesn’t have a firm grasp on the film, and it’s tone and depth vary wildly over the two hours of padded narrative. What begins as a mildly compelling, mildly amusing detective thriller quickly morphs into a rote actioner in period clothes. Much like how McTeigue turned the final act of The Invasion into an atonal mess of car chases and blow-ups, the third act of The Raven seems like it came out of a completely separate movie than the two acts preceding it. The kicker is this film could work either as a cerebral thriller or an action film, but trying to combine the two just muddies up everything.

John Cusack or Nicholas Cage? Vote now!

John Cusack tries as hard as he can to inject life into the film, sometimes going so far over the top it would take a thesaurus to describe it properly. Cusack is a fine actor most of the time, but not when he’s clearly channeling the spirit of the recent, crazy-ass Drive Crazy model Nicholas Cage. He’s a better choice than Cage to play Poe by far, but while we expect Cage to get bug-eyed and frantic at the slightest provocation and to devour scenery like a starving man, it’s oddly jarring to see Cusack try it. It’s clear he’s approaching this as a real acting opportunity and not a paycheck, but his dedication seems woefully misplaced. It’s still quite amusing to see him barrel through his lines like a runaway train, however.

The rest of the cast occupies the full spectrum of talent, and while most of them seem well-cast, they simply don’t work well together as an ensemble. Case in point, Luke Evans makes a great inspector, and he’s a fine choice for a compelling lead with his steely gaze and dangerous cheekbones, but there’s no Holmes/Watson chemistry between him and Cusack. It’s not that the two should be bromantic (although I wouldn’t complain) but their lack of connection makes it hard to root for them. Similarly, Cusack and Alice Eve have just as little connection, despite all the deep, teenage diary-style declarations of love between them. Eve, in fact, is such a bland presence that it’s hard to care that she’s been placed in mortal danger. The writers and director must feel the same way, since Emily’s predicament quickly takes a back seat to the chase for the killer and his cryptic clues, something that’s never as clever as the script thinks it is.

Marathons were formal affairs back in the 19th century.

For a film that focuses on Edgar Allen Poe, there’s a surprising lack of understanding of his works or even their history of publication. The film focuses primarily on the stories commonly taught in high school English classes: “The Cask of Amontillado”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “Murders in the Rue-Moruge”, and “The Pit and the Pendulum” among others. However, it takes only the violence from those tales without exploring the darkness underneath. They’re more an excuse for gory, grindhouse money shots than an exploration of the shadowy urges of the human animal. The film takes the basics of Poe’s life and stories and throws them all at the screen to see what works. It’s Poe as seen through the eyes of a disaffected Hot Topic-addicted suburban teenager. 

There’s an odd fascination with teeth throughout the film, which is possibly a reference to the obscure Poe tale “Berenice”, but probably isn’t (the film isn’t that smart). Cusack’s lower teeth seem jumbled and crooked, much like Poe is seen by the vast majority of Baltimore. Evans’ canines are prominent nearly every time he speaks, as if emphasizing his role as hunter and bloodhound. Finally, Eve’s teeth are distractingly perfect, capped and bleached and always stark white even when she’s covered in dirt. Along with her flat, Southern California-inspired accent, it serves to take her even further out of the story and make her interactions with Cusack all the more difficult to realize.

The aftermath of the brutal murder of Poe’s writing.

That’s not to say the film is completely without merit. It’s oddly compelling in its ridiculousness, even if it’s never acknowledged, and the concept is intriguing, even if the execution never rises to the same level. There’s just as much to be seen in the film’s negative space, that is, the film that could have been, as there is to be seen in the film that’s actually on screen. It gets more wrong than right, but still manages to be mostly watchable if not memorable. Poe definitely deserves better, but there’s certainly been much, much worse adaptations of his work. Here’s hoping this won’t be the first of many fantastical re-imaginings of famous author’s lives. Because I don’t ever want to see Nicholas Cage as H. P. Lovecraft in the thrilling, action-adventure version of The Call of Cthulhu

Rating: 5 out of 10 / C

JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and (insert Edgar Allen Poe reference here). <a href="; title="imageimage

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