It is possible to make a pretty engaging or at least curiously interesting narrative using historical figures, even if the basic premise is viciously ridiculous. For instance, I am really looking forward the upcoming film Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, even though the pretentions toward reality in that film seem to be wholly absent. Meanwhile, The Raven attempts to at least fit into a plausible interpretation of reality, and yet I can already predict that I will have more fun at that other film than I had with this one.
On a basic script level, there really isn’t have much meat to this story beyond the log line that probably got it the green light in the first place. Edgar Allen Poe is brought in by the Baltimore police in order to help solve a series of murders inspired by his fiction. It is a simple idea, and yet one with limitless possibility for stylish, smart thrills with an interesting period setting.
Yet, in spite of this heady promise, The Raven fails to create anything that could really be considered worthy of recommendation. John Cusack as Poe is a suitable avatar for the author, though he is held back from creating a truly memorable character by the limitations of the script. Aside from one or two exceedingly verbose lines, we don’t get a feel for Poe as a writer or intellect of any great power. Similarly, Poe’s well-known tendency toward debauchery of the chemical variety is greatly underplayed. It is mentioned, and we see him drinking now and then, but we never get a sense of this aspect of his personality as anything that actually affects him.
Giving him a standard star-crossed love interest is another failing. As pretty as Alice Eve is in the role of Emily, she adds little to the story other than to give Poe more of a reason to be invested in the case personally. His chemistry with her is minimal. Also lacking is any kind of interesting reparte between Poe and Inspector Fields (Luke Evans). In films or television shows that feature this kind of plot (particularly Castle) the relationship between the no nonsense cop and the debauched author is what gives the story its spark, and yet you fail to ever elevate their interplay. They seem nearly constantly in a state of just getting to know one another, and really aside from Poe giving plots from his stories, he offers very little to the investigation.
Likewise, the period setting and the gothic tone director John McTeigue tries to set fails to ever materialize into a sense of real atmosphere. Sure there is mist, and wet cobblestones, and gas lights, but none of this ever becomes cohesive or encompassing enough to really feel as though the characters exist in the space. This is a larger problem with the production as a whole. There is no style behind the production design to match the vision of the film with the world of the film, and so everything feels stagey and thin. There should be a visual flair that helps to elevate the gothic, pulp material, but instead we get fairly workmanlike compositions.
Is The Raven a bad film? No. But it isn’t particularly good either. It exists, it glows on the screen, and I watched without complaint, but upon leaving the theater I’d already begun to forget certain aspects of the tale. This is a transient film, nebulous, insubstantial. In keeping with the horror-esque subject matter, I’ll call it a ghost, the wisp of the spirit of a better film. And given the wealth of places that it could have gone, that is an even greater shame.