One of the enduring mysteries about Edgar Allan Poe is how he spent the last week or so of his life. He was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore, Maryland, on Oct. 3, 1849, “in great distress. . . in need of immediate assistance,” according the newspaper accounts of the day. Poe would die four days later, never coherent enough to tell what had happened to him or why he kept repeating the name “Reynolds.”
So it’s quite possible--though not probable—that the father of the American detective story spent his last days helping the Baltimore police catch a serial killer who based his crimes on Poe’s macabre works as depicted in the highly entertaining movie The Raven.
And possible—though not probable—makes for an intriguing film that is resplendent with details about Poe’s life and work while capturing the spirit of the man, whose fiction and poetry have never gone out of fashion. There’s a reason why the Mystery Writers of America named its version of the Oscars after Poe; the Edgar Awards were announced just last Thursday, which may be the only reason to release The Raven now. While 2012 is the 203rd anniversary of his birth, Poe was born in January and died in October.
The Raven is set during the week before the death of Poe (played by an intriguing John Cusack). On the downside of his career, Poe is a broke, belligerent drunk, so desperate for alcohol he’s willing to get into a fight just to steal a man’s drink. His meager livelihood comes from the acid-dipped reviews he writes for the Baltimore Patriot. But even that is drying up. Instead of running Poe’s scathing review of the latest work by Longfellow, the editor runs Longfellow’s poem. “People like Longfellow,” the editor tells the ranting Poe. Poe is madly in love with Emily (a lovely Alice Eve) whose father Colonel Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson) despises him. After all, would you want your daughter to marry Poe?
The murder of a woman and her daughter in a supposedly locked room is being investigated by the police. Strong-jawed Detective Emmett Fields (Luke Evans, Zeus in The Immortals) notices that the murder scene has an uncanny resemblance to the killings in Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. The detective doesn’t suspect Poe but believes there is some connection between the author and the killer that only Poe can figure out. “We are in need of your unwholesome expertise,” says Fields. This rings even truer when another murder happens, this time with allusions to The Pit and The Pendulum, and the victim is another critic whose venomous feud with Poe was played out in the newspapers.
The violence escalates as the killer challenges the broken-down Poe to write more stories. “I’ve used up all my tricks,” says Poe, who clearly has writers’ block. The game changer is when Emily is kidnapped.
Director James McTeigue (V For Vendetta) wraps The Raven in a Gothic mist that envelopes Baltimore (actually a convincing Serbia and Hungary) as it oozes from every street and also blankets the countryside. The Raven depicts a Baltimore as moody and imbued in squalor as Poe himself. Baltimore also seems to be a city full of ravens. Ravens that swoop down in parks; ravens that flutter out of caskets; ravens that feast on carrion in the streets; ravens everywhere, especially in Poe’s mind.
And as Poe, John Cusack, a personal favorite, slips into the mindset of a drunken, out of control Poe who has pretty much
alienated everyone around him. Cusack easily sheds his High Fidelity/Grosse Pointe Blank/Say Anything persona for that of a
brilliant writer drowning himself in alcoholic haze. His devastation over how his stories are being corrupted is credible.
Scriptwriters Hannah Shakespeare and Ben Livingston have clearly done their homework, loading The Raven with a multitude of details about on Poe and his work. For example, Poe’s last words are apparently accurately portrayed in The Raven. Yet there are a few jarring differences such as the character named Griswold. A critic named Rufus Griswold and Poe did hate each other; Griswald wrote his enemy’s obit and then did his best to turn readers against the late Poe. While the newspaper headlines scream “serial killer,” that’s a 20th century term.
Still, The Raven serves Poe and his reputation well. Poe’s work withstands the centuries. Evermore.
Rated R for bloody violence and grisly images; 111 minutes.
(And here's Poe's poem The Raven.)
Photos: Top: John Cusack, Luke Evans; Cusack in The Raven. Photo courtesy Intrepid Pictures