The Raven takes a solid foundation (the works of Edgar Allan Poe) gives it an interesting twist (a Se7en-esque crime riff on Poe's existing works) and squanders the opportunity into an unwatchable, 111-minute film fit for no audience. One part CSI, one part Saw, the thriller plods its way through bloody setup after bloody setup, as Poe (John Cusack) accompanies Detective Fields (Luke Evans) in search of the author's fiancee Emily (Alice Eve). She's been kidnapped by a murderous, literary-inclined madman, prompting Poe to put on his Sherlock hat and scream a lot.
Turns out, the inventive demises of Poe's characters, recreated by the faceless serial killer, aren't that exciting at least, in the hands of director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta, Ninja Assassin). The Raven is a straightforward procedural souped up with Victorian era production design, but the unique setting doesn't forgive any of the ineptitude on display in the other aspects of the film. Poe is forced by the murder to chronicle his villainous exploits for the Baltimore newspaper the perfect way to torture an entitled author and a dramatic hook to draw us into the antics. But McTeigue abandons the slow burn quality that could have been in favor of buckets of blood. The grisliness of the killings is one of the film's obsession, red splashing across the screen as a pendulum guts a random victim. The Raven's gore earns the film's R, but it's out of place.
Cusack's performance as Poe is befuddling. At times he's an egomaniac, a wise thinker, an action hero he's completely in flux, and every ounce of the movie's attempted seriousness vanishes. Never before has a part cried out for Nicolas Cage's signature brand of crazy-eyed, manic heightened realism. Late in the film, Poe and a team of police frantically search for his wife-to-be in a crypt. He calls out "EMILLLLLLLLYYYYYYY" in what sounds like the actor's best Ron Burgandy impression. Cusack doesn't know what movie he's in, and there's no one around to help him.
There's little to enjoy in The Raven, even on the surface. The muddy and dull cinematography looks like it was shot with a pea soup filter, drab, period-costuming and production design making squinting even more imperative. There's a strong core idea that dimly flickers under the bland mess of ideas flopping around in the movie one Cusack and McTeigue even seem capable of pulling off. But The Raven is a spilled quill of ink, sopped up with scare tactics and over-the-top performances. Less nevermore than never began.