Buried somewhere in "The Raven" is a pretty good movie clawing to get out; but it's smothered in a pile of wooden acting, excessive gore and murky scripting.
Yeah, I know - you'd never expect to see "wooden" in any review of a film with John Cusack.
But then again, you'd never expect to see Cusack playing Edgar Allan Poe.
In this film publicity image released by Relativity Media, Luke Evans portrays Detective Fields, left, and John Cusack portrays Edgar Allan Poe in a scene from the gothic thriller “The Raven.”
In this highly fictionalized tale, Cusack's Poe is near the end of his life, going through a tough time financially and creatively, when a series of murders begins emulating those in his tales.
At first, the writer is a suspect; but it's soon clear that the perp is playing a game with Poe - especially after he kidnaps Poe's girlfriend.
Whereupon the author - who virtually invented the modern detective tale - joins the police in their quest for the killer.
It's a clever idea, but it doesn't quite work.
The film is too long, its pacing uneven: At times, it plods along clumsily while we wait for the next grisly clue; at others, it races forward so swiftly that key plot points are easily missed.
It wasn't easy to tell how much sense the tale was making. But - and this would have bothered Poe - several scenes seem to defy logic, particularly Emily's abduction and the very end.
To be fair, the film has some fine suspense, plus a solution that's tough to foresee. And there's a late-film moment when dialog between Poe and the killer flirts with some profound creator-creation ideas; but this is never developed with clarity or depth.
I don't know a lot about the writer's life; but I did study his work under Poe biographer Kenneth Silverman, and I couldn't help feeling that the quintessentially hip, down-to-earth Cusack doesn't have the gravitas or the 19th-century demeanor for this role. At times you can almost see him acting, and he doesn't wind up coming across as either Poe or Cusack - which won't please fans of either man.
(He does a fine job reading from "The Raven," however; I'd have liked more of this.)
Most of the cast feels similarly stiff - though Luke Evans is solid as the police detective working with Poe.
To top it off, the film is so brutally violent that even the macabre author might have been repulsed.
Honestly, it almost lost me in the revolting "pit and pendulum" scene, where I watched slack-jawed as a massive swinging blade - getting lower on each swing, as in Poe's tale - sliced three times through the stomach of a stout victim, right down to the table he's lying on.
No one in his right mind would show a scene like that; and briefly, I wondered if anyone in his right mind would continue sitting through a film that contained it.
I won't say that I'm sorry I did; but I can think of better ways to spend a Saturday evening.
** (out of four)
The film is rated R for language and brutal, graphic violence.