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For the Birds?

Grade: B (RENT IT)

IT’S MIDNIGHT IN THE MIND of Edgar Allan Poe.  Make that a “midnight dreary” in the mind of America’s Master of the Macabre and Inventor of the Detective Story played with passionate intensity by John Cusack in the new thriller “The Raven.”  It’s refreshing to see Cusack step out of his hipster box but much less so to see his love interest in the “The Raven” (played here by Alice Eve) literally boxed up alive and buried under the floorboards.  Claustrophilic camerawork and costume design by Danny Ruhlmann and Carlo Poggioli, respectively, create a Victorian America sufficiently “grim, ungainly,” as Poe writes of his eponymous raven in the 1844 poem, “ghastly, gaunt, and ominous.”  It’s too bad that “The Raven” is closer to the flightless turkey than to a bird that truly gets off the ground.

From director James McTeigue (“V for Vendetta”), this pitch-black thriller is set in the fall of 1849, just weeks shy of Poe’s mysterious death in Baltimore.  At forty years old, the real-life Poe was found drunk, delirious and wearing another man’s clothes.  This is the bankrupt Poe who’d grown inconsolable in the wake of his young wife Virginia’s death from tuberculosis.  (Virginia was not only the author’s first-cousin but a surprising thirteen-years-old when she married the gloomy author in 1836.)  Likely inspired by the popular “Sherlock Holmes” series, “The Raven” turns its nineteenth-century literary man into something of a caped crusader.  Poe teams up with the dashing Inspector Emmett Fields (Luke “The Wire” Evans) in order to solve a string of murders that mirror those imagined by Poe on the page.  We’ve all heard of life imitating art and vice versa, but here we have, with the gory recreations of Poe’s tales of torture and immurement, a rare case of death imitating art.  They must protect Emily, Poe’s fiancée (Alice Eve) while avoiding the blows of Emily’s imperious father (Brendan Gleeson).  “Over my dead body!” Gleeson protests at one point to which Cusack smirks: “Is that an option?”

Screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare give us a fun and foul-mouthed Poe who insults his drinking mates as “slobs,” “philistines,” and “mental oysters.”  He spouts some great lines – “Is imagination now a felony?” – but the plot points otherwise will strike you as familiar.  The pace, like Cusack’s performance, is lively but the script pulls from so many other films that it leaves Cusack, like a mangled marionette, hanging between too many masters.  Is it comedy, romance, Jack-the-Ripper horror or psychological thriller?   Cusack laments twice in the film: “Melancholy has followed me like a black dog all my life.”  The other black dog dragging him down is a plot, while clever at times, that doesn’t quite rise to Poe’s level of sustained originality and madness.