On paper, The Raven looks like it was inspired by kindred films like Kafka, Naked Lunch, and The Rum Diary, which place an author inside his own stories. But on the screen, it’s more a companion to 2009’s Sherlock Holmes—a similarly over-the-top, visually busy adventure thriller about a Victorian literary hero plagued by a criminal mastermind. Like Robert Downey Jr.’s interpretation of Holmes as a flouncing, sulky genius who solves (and creates) most of his problems with obnoxiousness, John Cusack’s take on the Edgar Allan Poe of The Raven is all bristling, entitled arrogance wrapped around a fierce core of self-destruction. (“I believe God gave him a spark of genius and quenched it in misery,” sums up newspaper editor and intermittent Poe supporter Brian Blessed, early on in the film.) The plot has a police detective (Luke Evans) consulting Poe for help solving a series of ghastly murders clearly modeled on Poe’s stories. Then the murderer kidnaps Poe’s fiancée (Alice Eve) to up the stakes. He’s an old cliché—a serial killer who baits his pursuers as if he wants to be caught—but there’s more method to the madness than is initially apparent.
Director James McTeigue (V For Vendetta, Ninja Assassin) mounts The Raven with visual splash and a rich production design that often looks overblown (especially during a Poe-derived killing splattered with CGI blood), but never cheap. Cusack delivers an appealingly eager performance, channeling his best Nicolas Cage in froth-and-rant mode. And screenwriters Ben Livingston (an actor turned first-time writer) and Hannah Shakespeare (who scripted Kevin Bacon’s directorial debut, Loverboy) start in an interesting direction by making Poe not a hero so much as a tortured, railing victim, distinctly in Evans’ debt and his intellectual shadow. (Evans’ intelligent, precise character seems to be bucking for Sherlock Holmes duty; curious that Poe, a detective-fiction pioneer, is so sneeringly contemptuous of his forensic science.) But the story gets increasingly conventional as it goes on, until Poe becomes just another action hero, following an increasingly illogical, National Treasure-esque set of clues through a series of confrontations. Poe was a flawed figure, but his greatest strength was in avoiding convention, or reinterpreting it to create something new. The Raven aspires to both, but abandons those ambitions to lie limply on the floor—only this, and nothing more.