John Cusack is one of those actors whom everybody likes. He was a consistently enjoyable presence in '80s films like Better Off Dead and Sixteen Candles, and he won the hearts of a generation of young women by being the most sensitive man ever in Say Anything. Since then, he's been an indie staple (Being John Malkovich, Bullets Over Broadway) who's happily taken on quirky, left-of-center projects like High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank. He'll do a Thin Red Line but also a Con Air. He just has one of those faces that's pleasant to see in a movie.
Who thought genial John Cusack was the right person to play Edgar Allan Poe? He gets by in The Raven on a goatee and a dark disposition, which kinda-sorta makes him resemble Poe. Good enough. That's the guiding principle behind every creative decision in The Raven: good enough.
The film, which was directed by James McTeigue (V for Vendetta), chronicles the final days of Poe's life, although anybody in the theater working on a school report about the author probably shouldn't use this film as a research tool. Poe wants to marry his sweetheart Emily (Alice Eve), even though he's poor and a drunk. But there's no time for love: A murderer is going around Poe's hometown of Baltimore killing people in ways that pay homage to his stories. The police ask for Poe's help, and soon there's a beat-the-clock element introduced after the murderer kidnaps Emily and boards her up in a crawlspace without food or water.
On its surface, The Raven is a fun idea: Real-life author must solve mysteries based on his own work. But the problem is that The Raven is all surface. The movie is nothing but its fun idea, without much development or ingenuity. While watching the film, you can practically see the studio pitch playing out: "It's like Saw meets Sherlock Holmes—with Edgar Allan Poe!" You keep waiting for The Raven to switch into a higher gear and really get humming—for it to settle into the battle-of-wits movie it keeps hinting at becoming—but that never happens.
Part of the reason the movie feels so stalled is that McTeigue fixates on his story's bloodier elements. While promoting the movie, Cusack has said: "Poe is, after all, the godfather of goth. I think he would have looked at [the torture film franchise] Saw and said, ‘That's mine.'" Goth and gore are the touchstones of The Raven, but McTeigue just drowns the film in both elements, as if he's concerned that anyone in the audience might think he's somehow shying away from the grisliness. As he proved with V for Vendetta, he has a certain flair for striking visuals, but as he also proved with V for Vendetta, the guy's sense of humor and skill with actors aren't particularly advanced. The Raven revels in its gruesomeness, but it's not particularly fun or riveting. It's Saw without Jigsaw.
Likely the only enjoyment you'll get is from Cusack. He's played authors before in Bullets Over Broadway and 1408, and for The Raven he amps up the self-loathing and surliness. It's not a very layered performance, but it feels accurate against our collective impression of who Poe was: drunk, fiery, depressed. And in a movie that seems put together from scraps of other films, Cusack's performance is the one ingredient that doesn't feel like a creative hand-me-down. Cusack remains his likeable self in The Raven, but when you're obsessed with making a gory, Poe-inspired thriller, who cares about being likable?
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.