Review: Cusack as Poe in 'The Raven' takes flight

Actor gives mystery writer injection of gusto

Author: Michelle Solomon, Contributing writer
Published On: Apr 27 2012 11:20:09 AM EDT
John Cusack in The Raven

If Robert Downey Jr. can inject his own quirky style into detective Sherlock Holmes, John Cusack can certainly have free rein to do anything he'd like with macabre author Edgar Allan Poe. And so he does.

The falling down of "The Raven" isn't Cusack's punk portrayal of Poe, but it's a premise that never fully realizes its potential -- a serial killer is using a writer's works as the backdrop for some gruesome murders, yet on film it becomes the stuff of nightly television crime drama, think "CSI" in the 19th century.

Cusack and director James McTeigue ("V for Vendetta") save the day, however. There's something oddly appealing about a gigantic pendulum in a pit inspired by, of course, Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum." When Cusack as Poe says, his mouth hanging open and gazing up at a gigantic scythe, "I really hadn't imagined the counterweight to be… so large," you can't help but get sucked into the film. Other acts of horror in the movie take their cue from "The Masque of the Red Death," "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Mystery of Marie Roget" and "The Tell-Tale Heart," to name a few.

Poe-sters will delight at inside jokes that maybe only they will get, but will fly over the heads of the rest of us who only know Poe-isms from doing the daily crossword (if you only know "suddenly there came a tapping," you cannot count yourself as a devotee).

Cusack goes at his character with gusto, putting aside the preconceived notion of the father of detective fiction as a sad sack drunk, and instead creating a portrait of an egotistical writer who believed he had a gift for the craft, as well as a mere love of whiskey and tincture of opium. "God gave him a spark of genius shrouded in misery," the movie's newspaper editor (Kevin McNally) says after Poe has another clash with him over one of his stories being replaced by one by a writer named Longfellow.

The film fares best when McTeigue is able to keep the action moving. The change in the script comes when the killer abducts Poe's fiancée, Emily (Alice Eve) and it's left to Poe to craft the perfect story that could save her life. Then it's Cusack and Co. having a jolly good time running around the dark streets of 19th century Baltimore (shot on location in Budapest) in search of a killer that's mad as a hatter.

"The Raven" isn't literary genius, but it's not a bad thriller, and something Poe himself would have delighted in.