Since his ‘90s heyday, John Cusack has seemed plagued by a never-ending struggle to find roles that fit his watchable talents with anything resembling snugness. Where he once made funky-weird blockbusters like “Con Air,” bringing his patented brand of wry, whip-smart detachment to the outlandishness unfolding before his eyes, he now accepts unironic leads in Roland Emmerich world-crushers, unable to do much but keep a straight face (while crying on the inside, no doubt) as the planet crumbles into green-screen rubble around him. It’s interesting that his most popular role in recent years came in “Hot Tub Time Machine,” a comedy deliberately harking back to the heady days of Lloyd Dobler.
Playing Edgar Allen Poe then would seem to offer a nice redemptive fillip for the actor, an opportunity to remind an audience of past glories, especially as James McTeigue’s serial-killer thriller wittily casts him as a destitute, dissolute has-been, long past career highs. And he’s certainly game to the task, rocking a fashionable goatee and air of volatile creative genius to engaging effect. Fictionalising the final few days of the author’s life, “The Raven” serves up a macabre vision in which a deranged Poe fan re-enacts murders from classic tales like “The Pit And The Pendulum” and “The Murders In The Rue Morgue,” while taunting the writer to shed his creative straitjacket and scribble a new masterpiece based on his fiendish exploits.
With its grisly murders and Edgar’s fetching fiancée Emily (Alice Eve) kidnapped (from a masked ball, no less) by the killer and imprisoned in a box, “The Raven” is heavy on “Saw” and “Seven” influences (both, in turn, inspired by Poe’s works). But despite a Shakespeare on screenplay duties (Hannah Shakespeare, that is, sharing the credit with first-time-scripter Ben Livingston), Cusack’s good work, and that of a supporting cast that also includes Brendan Gleeson as Emily’s father and Luke Evans as a high-flying Baltimore detective, is undone by a script that loses interest in finding thrills in its literary premise (a celebrated writer losing control of his own works) in favour of so-so production-line shocks. With McTeigue (“V For Vendetta,” “Ninja Assassin”) behind the camera, substance was always going to lose out to style, although the director does bring a suspenseful verve to proceedings.
“The Raven” opened in the UK this weekend, a full seven weeks before the US release. Arriving in a crowded weekend, and up against Disney’s “John Carter,” resilient holdover “The Women In Black” and the spring sunshine that always dampens UK cinema attendance, it’s not that surprising that it only just scraped into the Top 10. On the plus side for Cusack, he at least managed to eclipse Robert Pattinson’s ladykiller romp “Bel Ami,” albeit only just and on 40 more screens (300 as opposed to 260). Universal will be hoping for a much more favourable reception Stateside.
“The Raven” is currently 26% rotten.