Ask people to name the first Edgar Allan Poe reference off the top of their heads and they’ll probably quoth The Raven and say “nevermore”. Poe was a well-known American poet and writer, but it’s still not known exactly what caused his death in 1849 at age 40.
The film The Raven attempts to explain that. Whether it succeeds or not depends upon just how much of your disbelief you’re willing to suspend.
The Raven begins in Edgar Allan Poe’s later years, when he’s drunk, disorderly, and having trouble coming up with new material for the newspaper that employs him, the Patriot, where he writes critiques and original fiction and poetry. As the story opens, Poe is also courting Emily Hamilton, daughter of a… I don’t actually know what her father did, but he’s nautical by nature, as we learn later. Captain Hamilton doesn’t approve of their relationship, but they seem happy together despite that.
The other main character of the film is Inspector Fields of the Baltimore Police Department. Fields is called in to investigate a murder, and he realizes that it bears remarkable resemblance to a Poe story that he read in the past. Fields interviews Poe, determines that Poe could not have committed the murders, and then teams up with him to find the killer.
The killer, though, is continuing to replicate murders from Poe’s stories. When he kidnaps Emily, the game becomes personal, and it’s a race against time for Poe and Fields to find Emily before she dies, all while playing the killer’s convoluted game to unveil clues to her whereabouts.
The Raven stars John Cusack (Grosse Pointe Blank, Better Off Dead) as Edgar Allan Poe. He gets the look down, but I didn’t buy his voice or some of his acting. Which is weird, because everything else I’ve seen him in, from 80s screwball comedies to 90s romances and even to Hot Tub Time Machine, has been perfect. He’s an excellent actor; I just don’t think I knew what to expect. Also, he seemed a bit older than Poe, who was 40 at the time of his death, and it didn’t click with Alice Eve’s portrayal of Emily Hamilton.
Ah, yes, Alice Eve (Star Trek Into Darkness). I honestly didn’t know she was in the movie until I picked this one off the Netflix list. I kept expecting her to speak in a British accent (she is), but she didn’t. Though she was mostly a damsel in distress, I did rather like the one scene where she tried to take control of her fate.
Cusack’s character is joined by Luke Evans (The Three Musketeers, The Hobbit 2 and 3) as Inspector Fields. He was pretty passable as a Holmes-lite character who is a keen observer as well as a man of action, but without all of Holmes’s idiosyncrasies. Brendan Gleeson (Harry Potter 4 through 7) is Captain Hamilton, a gruff man who eventually comes around to the side of Poe and Fields.
The film, written by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, is quite twisty, and attempts to pay homage to Poe while still being dramatic and interesting. Thing is, it’s basically just a murder mystery with a famous author in it, and as if to support the fact that Poe is said famous author it’s actually too complicated. Too many red herrings, too many false leads. Director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) has a pretty straightforward style for the most part — nothing directorial stood out. Lucas Vidal handled the music, which didn’t stand out either — although at least it didn’t feel inappropriate.
I guess my biggest impression of The Raven is that I was underwhelmed. Perhaps that’s because, despite the fact that Poe is a huge name in American literature, for some reason his story doesn’t compel people the way that other stories do. I don’t know why that is. With Poe, it’s always about his works, not the man himself — at least, in my experience. But the movie itself didn’t dazzle me either; it was complex and psychological, but a few of the action sequences felt out of place and the ending, I’m sorry to say, was so confusing (and a little disappointing) that it left me with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.
The film is available on Netflix, so if you already pay for that, you’re not out any money. But I don’t think the world needed a fictionalized account of the last days of Edgar Allan Poe. And the movie-going public agreed — the film only just made back its $26 million budget. If you’re really into Poe, check it out, but if not, I’d give it a pass.
Note to Parents: This film contains explicit violence, blood, gore, adult language, and adult situations. It is rated R for a reason. That said, there’s no explicit (or even implicit) sex (it was the 1840s after all), so if you let your kids see gory, violent films with swearing but no boobies, then this one should be all right for them. Of course, you should use your best judgment when it comes to your children.
About the Author
Josh Roseman (not the trombonist; the other one) lives in Georgia. His fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Escape Pod, and the Crossed Genres anthology Fat Girl in a Strange Land. His voice has been heard around the fiction podosphere as well, including here on Escape Pod. Find him online at roseplusman.com, or on Twitter @listener42.