The Raven

The problem with “The Raven” is the same problem with a lot of movies: it doesn’t star Nicolas Cage.

Set in Baltimore in 1849, this lurid and ludicrous mystery has author Edgar Allan Poe summoned to assist police when a serial killer starts committing murders based on his stories. The macabre writer, rapidly disintegrating in the final weeks of his gloomy life, penniless and pulling the “Don’t you know who I am?!” routine in taverns for free drinks, is portrayed here as having a pet raccoon and ongoing feuds with all of his literary colleagues. And then, you know, he fights crime. In other words, it’s exactly the kind of preposterousness that could benefit from one of Cage’s trademark over-the-top nutty performances.

Instead of Nicolas Cage (Christopher Walken would have been good, too) we have John Cusack, who is beloved by one and all but who seems to be taking this nonsense seriously. Somehow he read the screenplay (credited to Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare [!]) and thought: Ah, yes. Here is something meaty into which I can sink my thespian teeth. There are moments when he’s almost as outrageous as the material calls for — say, when Poe is pursuing the killer across a catwalk above a stage where a production of “Macbeth” is in mid-performance — but in general he is frustratingly subdued.

The same is also true of the director, James McTeigue. After “V for Vendetta,” which was flamboyant but smart, he made “Ninja Assassin,” which was loud and stupid. Now he’s mixing the two: “The Raven” has bursts of tasteless, gratuitous, “Saw”-style violence, but McTeigue never commits to the kind of full-bore lunacy that might have made the film a campy pleasure. He’s splitting the difference between respectability and fun trashiness, and it doesn’t work. You gotta choose a side.

We don’t even get a decent mystery plot! The police, represented by Detective Fields (Orlando Bloom impersonator Luke Evans), initially suspect Poe himself of the murders. The wealthy young woman Poe is wooing (played by Alice Eve) must eventually fall into the clutches of the killer, of course. Her father (Brendan Gleeson) disapproves of her relationship with Poe. The killer leaves notes instructing Poe to write about the murders in the newspaper, lest he strike again, which he does anyway. The killer’s identity becomes apparent in a most ham-fisted manner, and is completely implausible.

So what kept me from hating the film altogether? Those occasional moments of intended humor, as when Poe remarks, “If I had known my work would have such an influence on people, I’d have devoted more time to eroticism”; and the moments of unintended humor, which are much more frequent. Basically, I laughed at the film a lot, but not enough to make it worthwhile as an all-out train wreck.

C- (1 hr., 51 min.; R, some profanity, a fair amount of very graphic violence.)

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