Ponderous, Weak and Weary

Last week I attended the Edgar Awards Banquet in New York City, where I was honored to receive the Robert L. Fish Award for the Best First Short Story of the year.  The banquet began with a video from John Cusack welcoming the attendees, followed by clips from his new movie, The Raven.  After I returned home, I went out to see the movie.

The story takes Edgar Allan Poe’s death in Baltimore, which is shrouded in some mystery, as a jumping off point for a story that layers on a serial killer plot.  The Baltimore police are called to a tenement because of a woman’s screams.  When they arrive, they hear a person inside the room insert a key in the door and lock it.  Breaking in, they find a dead woman with her throat cut on the floor and her daughter, also dead, stuffed up the chimney.  No one else is in the room, and the only window in it is nailed shut.  The uniformed police call Detective Emmett Fields (Luke Evans) to the scene.  Inspecting the window, he discovers the nails hide a secret release, which he recognizes from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack).

Poe is first seen trying to get a drink in a bar where he holds forth loudly on his genius as a writer.  He’s anticipating a good payment for a review from the Baltimore paper where he works, but the next morning he finds the editor, Maddux (Kevin McNally) has killed his review.  Poe is in love with a young woman from a rich family, Emily Hamilton (Alice Lee), though her father, Captain Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson) despises Poe.  The police bring Poe in for questioning about the killing, and eventually Fields asks him to assist in the investigation.

They’re soon called to the scene of another death.  A critic that Poe has competed with, Rufus Griswold, has met his death a la “The Pit and the Pendulum.”  On his body, the police find a note to Poe with a challenge to him to solve the mystery.  Soon Emily is kidnapped and her life becomes the prize in the competition.

I always enjoy John Cusack’s performances, from Say Anything through Being John Malkovich on to 1408.  I even watched 2012 more than once because of him, which is true devotion.  I would love to see him portray Poe in a biographical movie, or even a fictional movie that tried to portray the real Poe.  Sadly, The Raven is not that movie.

The screenwriters, Hannah Shakespeare and Ben Livingston, retread all the popular misconceptions about Poe, who wasn’t even living in Baltimore at the time of his death.  He’d been traveling along the East Coast, raising money for a magazine he wished to start, when he disappeared from Philadelphia.  He was later found in a tavern in Baltimore in distress and transferred to a hospital where he eventually died.  The only thing they get right is that he called out the name Reynolds while in hospital.  Even Wikipedia has more veracity on Poe’s character and the world in which he lived than this script.  At one point, the killer talks of moving to France to challenge the intellect of a rising literary star, Jules Verne.  Verne was 21 years old when Poe died, and had started writing librettos for operettas at that time.  His great novels wouldn’t come on the scene for 14 more years.  The premise of the movie, which could have been compelling in better hands, devolves into a hackneyed serial killer film.

Poe suffered one of the greatest posthumous character assassinations in history, perpetrated by The Reverend Rufus Griswold, who was a failed Baptist minister, a pathetic poet, and at one time Poe’s competition for the affections of a woman.  While they were at first friendly toward each other, they became rivals and bitter enemies.  After Poe’s death, Griswold stole the rights to his works and published a collection that included a memoir of Poe’s life.  While couched in false sympathy, the memoir is the source of all the stories of Poe being a drunkard and drug addict who died young from all his hard living.  While scholars eventually published good biographies of Poe, Griswold’s slanders live on with everyone who wants to hold Poe up as a cautionary tale of excess.  Actually, Poe scholars will likely cheer Griswold’s death in the movie.  Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

Director James McTiegue had been an assistant director on the Matrix trilogy as well as Star Wars II: The Attack of the Clones.  He’d moved into the directing chair with V for Vendetta, a movie I enjoyed.  Here, though, he does a straightforward, rather bland job.  He’s not helped by the dark cinematography that obscures rather than sets a mood.  (There’s also a major continuity mistake.  When Griswold is killed, his face is splattered with blood.  The face is seen twice more – once without blood on it, and then it magically reappears.)

This movie was a major disappointment to me.  Cusack has another thriller coming out this fall – The Paperboy, which also stars Nicole Kidman, Scott Glenn and Matthew McConaughey (and Zac Efron, but with Lee Daniels {Precious} directing, there’s a chance for a great performance from him).  I’ll be in line to see it when it’s released.  As far as anything new from McTiegue, Shakespeare and/or Livingston, my answer is simply: Nevermore.

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