Quoth the raven: "Eh."
Showcasing John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe on the trail of a copycat serial killer, the strangely dull new film"The Raven" squanders a promising scenario while half-burying Cusack's mercurial skills as a leading man with the wiles of a character actor.
Someone in 1849 Baltimore is on a murder spree, riffing on methods of torture and execution depicted in "The Pit and the Pendulum" and other works of the melancholic, alcoholic Poe. It's like a grisly one-person interactive book club focused on one man's literary output.
Written by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, "The Raven" invents a gallery of fictional characters to juice up Poe's final days. A local detective, played by a bland Luke Evans, suspects Poe may be the one behind the Poe-inspired carnage.
For a while, you give the film the benefit of the doubt. Shooting in period-appropriate Budapest, Hungary, and Belgrade, Serbia, albeit with too few extras on the streets, director James McTeigue pushes the story along to the next outre splatter incident. But in terms of tone, I honestly don't know how McTeigue intended this material.
McTeigue directed "V for Vendetta,"and like that picture, "The Raven" is crowded with incident, yet isn't very exciting or fluid as cinema. The works of Poe are naturals for the screen, and their beauty lies in their raw intensity, adaptable for lowdown pulp purposes. The Roger Corman-produced Poe adaptations may not have been faithful to the originals, but they worked their own rough magic. The notion in "The Raven" of Poe chasing after his unwanted protege before he kills again is a good start. But there's no real kick or shiver to the events, nor to the ultimate revelation.
At one point Cusack's Poe mutters: "I've used up all my tricks," bemoaning his fate as a fiction writer trying to make ends meet. It's the same thought most every writer, and indeed most actors, fear at some point in their careers. With a stylishly dour goatee and air of charismatic minimalist despair, Cusack's portrayal feels like a look, a character design, in search of completion.
As with many fine actors, Cusack walks a thin line between droll understatement and practiced diffidence. McTeigue treats him like a star, and Cusack has his moments. But too many individual scenes requiring sweep and propulsion — a masked ball, the murderer running loose backstage at a theater — never get out of second gear. And however many digitally created ravens appear on screen in "The Raven," it's one too many. Even for a Poe movie.
'The Raven' -- 2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for bloody violence and grisly images)
Running time: 1:50