It's the fall of 1849, and Edgar Allan Poe has returned to Baltimore. In the opening scenes of The Raven, we see Poe, portrayed by John Cusack, at his intellectual and condescending worst. Clearly an alcoholic with raging financial troubles, he offends everyone he tries to cadge money or a drink from by alternately mocking their intellect and boasting of his own. He is tossed from a bar when only a visiting Frenchman recognizes his best-known poem, "The Raven." At the same time, a horrible murder takes place in Baltimore, the killing of a mother and her young daughter with the daughter's corpse ending up stuffed in the chimney. The detective summoned to solve the ghastly crime recognizes something familiar, and with a little research, discovers that the murder mirrors that of Poe's great short story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."
If you've seen a commercial or a trailer for The Raven, it's pretty obvious what the movie is about and the general direction it's going to take. Of course Poe is at first a suspect in the murder of the mother and child, but it becomes clear to the police that Poe is in many ways as much a victim of the crime spree that has started as those who are left mangled by the killer. So, at its shallowest level, The Raven is a decent enough period murder mystery to keep the viewers' attention. At the same time, however, there are moments that require more suspension of disbelief than I could muster, especially when it comes to the particulars of the various crimes that are uncovered. Taken literally, the crimes indicate that the murderer is not only brilliant but also nearly superhumanly strong and adept. The supporting characters are nominally interesting, if a little flat, and although one wonders how the beautiful Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve) could possibly fall in love with Poe, a man much her elder and far more dour, it's clear how much Poe loves her such that she is swept off her feet by both his ardor and his brilliance. Similarly, stalwart Detective Fields (Luke Evans) is clearly a man out of his own time, using forensic and detective methodologies that Poe's own Dupin and the later Sherlock Holmes would make famous. And though they are at first repulsed by Poe and his bluster, Fields and the audience are eventually permitted to see beneath to the tortured and brilliant man that hides beneath the pedantic and annoying exterior.
It's this journey that makes the movie so strong—it's a study of Poe in his final days, a tortured soul striving to break free of the darkness that has repressed him all his life and now taken the form of a murderer using his own words against him. It is the humanization of a figure at first presented as unconscionably arrogant into a passionate loving man fighting to prevent the terrible crimes he knows are coming. It really isn't the matter of the murderer's identity that gives this movie what power it has, nor is it the delight with which the gruesome crimes are depicted on screen; instead it is what those things represent—the depression that accompanies unrelenting tragedies, depression that cannot be eased either by Poe's writing or drinking. The people that despise Poe in this movie, and there are many, only see what the world has wrought upon him—there are very few to whom he either opens up (Emily and Fields) or who recognize on their own that his greatness comes from the darkness. Ironically, the person who knows this best is the killer.
The director and Cusack could have played Poe up for schmaltz, but instead they have given him depth and roundedness, providing unexpected emotional content in what could have just been a popcorn movie with a gimmick. Cusack is somewhat restrained by the script but he does a great deal with it anyway, causing Poe to rise above the angry din that weighs him down. The cinematography is also of a piece with Poe's mood—dingy buildings and muted colors resonate with Poe's melancholy; even a formal masquerade ball, usually filmed with pomp and color, is muted and washed out.
To be sure, The Raven is also a love letter to Poe. Images from a wide range of the works of Poe are played out onscreen, and someone is often quoting some line or another from his works. The depth that Poe's character is given despite the ludicrous rationale for the movie also speaks to a fondness for him. The end result is good, not great: the mystery is fairly obvious once resolved. But The Raven really isn't about solving the crimes, but the journey of the artist and the man instead. It strikes me that The Raven is going to be one of those movies that achieve a little cult status, an underground coterie of people who can get past the surface to see the depths of the creative mind in disarray. I foresee eventually owning this film and revisiting it despite its flaws.