John Cusack loves to stretch as an actor, eager to make us forget all about his Everyman roles in "Say Anything," "High Fidelity" and even "Hot Tub Time Machine."
He's no Poe, though.
"The Raven," available now on Blu-ray and DVD, finds Cusack playing Edgar Allan Poe, the master of the macabre, as if he just staggered into a masquerade ball. It's a theatrical performance full of high notes, one that lets us see the actor inside far too often.
The concept itself is a hoot, a sly introduction to Poe's literary legacy for film fans who wouldn't know "The Tell Tale Heart" from "Saw: Part VIII."
Cusack is Poe, the famed author of "The Raven" and other goosebump raising tales. He's also a drunk with a foul mouth, someone whose best works appear to be behind him. And he knows it as well as anyone.
He's content to insult strangers in bars and pine for his beloved Emily (Alice Eve, beautiful and bland), even if her father (Brendan Gleeson) would rather she find another suitor - any suitor, really.
Can you blame the poor pappy?
Poe's tales become the unwitting inspiration for a killer who recreates the author's most barbaric sequences. That brings Poe into an uneasy pairing with Detective Fields (a terrific Luke Evans), and together they try to find the serial slayer before more innocents suffer.
"The Raven" touches on the artist's responsibility for the nightmarish images they bring into the world. It's as good a debate then as it is now, but "The Raven" is content to gussy up a standard serial killer story with literary aspirations.
Classy, no doubt. The necessary flourishes simply aren't enough to make "The Raven" more than a generic thriller. Cusack's inelegant performance keeps muffling the mystery, and the final reveal ends up feeling rushed and incomplete.
The set design and period costumes are first rate, but the screenplay teeters between inspired and insipid, with phrases that either feel too modern or are simply delivered without the necessary delicacy.
The Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes, a featurette dubbed "The Raven Guts: Bringing Death to Life," an interview with Cusack and director James McTeigue, "Behind the Beauty and Horror" and "The Madness, Misery and Mystery of Edgar Allan Poe."
The latter fills in some necessary gaps in the life of the literary icon, courtesy of Poe scholars and some smartly edited snippets from the film. Poe found work as a writer, editor and critic, and it's in the latter role where he was feared by his peers. Poe the critic was dubbed the "tomahawk man," we're told.
"Behind the Beauty and Horror" is a standard blend of story recap and actor interviews, while "The Raven Guts" breaks down the pre-"CSI" elements to the film as well as a tribute to Evans' take on Poe's reticent sleuthing partner.
Cusack pulled a De Niro to play the ravaged writer, shedding 25 pounds to give Poe the appropriately gaunt look. He still isn't the best fit for the doomed artist.
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