If Rufus Griswold had written a script for an Edgar Allan Poe movie, it would look a lot like The Raven. Griswold is infamous for being Poe’s literary nemesis, deliberately assassinating Poe’s character in an obituary and biography shortly after the writer’s death. The lonely, drunk, drug-addled madman caricature of Poe? That’s Griswold’s greatest contribution to literary history. And although many friends of Poe (and yes, he had many friends and admirers) came to the defense of poor Edgar’s posthumous reputation, the die had been cast. And The Raven throws Griswold’s loaded lying dice once again.
The movie opens with Poe, played by John Cusack, delirious on a park bench in Baltimore, hours before his death. He looks up. A raven circles the moon in the sky. The next time we see Poe, he’s stumbling down the street, drunk as usual. Wasn’t he always drunk? Well, actually no. One of the great exaggerations of Poe’s biography has always been his drinking problem. Yes, Poe drank. And yes, sometimes he drank at inopportune moments, damaging his career. But Poe, according to those who knew him (and corroborated by the work he produced) was not a perpetually drinking alcoholic stumbling from one bar to the next, friends hiding the cough syrup lest Poe should find it. Yet this is the Poe of the movie. I think perhaps Cusackpoe drinks more in the few days time of this movie than Poe actually drank in his entire life.
To add further insult (just like Griswold), Cusackpoe also enjoys taking drugs. Although we don’t see him smoking opium or guzzling laudanum in the movie, he’s accused of it by other characters and he gleefully admits to it. Sorry kids, the real life Poe was not scribbling his dark tales under the influence of drugs. You need to read Coleridge or De Quincey for that.
I realized the film I was watching was much closer to the approach taken in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which will be released in June. Cusackpoe is a complete fantasy of a scriptwriter and director who want their Poe drunk, drug-addled and insane. And I get that. That’s box office. Very few of us want to see a biopic of a 19th century writer. So you dress it up with murders inspired by his tales and the kids will come running (or probably not, in this film’s case). The problem for a literary historian like me is that while no one will believe that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is an accurate portrayal of Lincoln, plenty of people will believe the Cusackpoe is an accurate portrayal of Edgar Poe.
So where does this leave The Raven as a film? Cusackpoe aside, could I enjoy the film on its own merits as a thriller/horror/murder mystery? No. Cusack was the wrong actor for the tormented genius envisioned by the director, James McTeigue. In his best performances, Cusack has a kind of, dare I say, quirky, energy that makes him enjoyable to watch. But that delivery seems so out of place here. He seems less the tormented genius and more like someone in uncomfortable shoes. Not to mention that he’s also no genius in this film. Everyone gets the better of him at one point or another.
The script is also poor, trying too hard to sound like 19th Century speech, but instead coming off like a clichéd parody. Poe even quite seriously says, “pray tell” once or twice in the film I did enjoy the scenes depicting the murders inspired by Poe’s tales, but the investigation itself just plodded along. I don’t think I’m spoiling things by saying there’s no big twist to the mystery. The denouement falls very flatly.
In one scene of the film, Cusackpoe bemoans “another abject humiliation.” I can’t recall which scene because there are so many humiliating moments for him throughout the film. Cusackpoe is beaten, threatened, rejected, insulted, slapped and even splashed with mud by a departing carriage. While I can’t quite disagree that Poe was subjected to much derision during his life (and he also dished out quite a bit), to telescope so much humiliation in the few days of this film, makes his life seem like such a failure. And Poe’s works refute that failure. Poe may have toiled and died in poverty, may have been slandered by Griswold after death, but literary history gives him the last laugh, the final triumph: we still read Poe. The Raven, however, is just another revel in the humiliation of Poe’s spurious reputation. Griswold would be proud.
And don’t get me started on the Baltimore nonsense in this film . . .
The Raven opens today in Philly-area theaters.