John Cusack to Play Poe

A few days ago John Cusack twittered that he was set to play Edgar Allan Poe in a psychological thriller called “The Raven, to be directed by James McTeigue (“V for Vendetta” and “Ninja Assassin”).

John Cusack to Play Poe

Apparently, this script has been around for a while, stuck in development hell. The original story was scripted by Hannah Shakespeare and Ben Livingston, but has since undergone revisions. It would follow Poe during the last five days of his life, as the brooding author attempts to find a serial killer who uses Poe’s own fiction as a murderous methodology.

The idea calls to mind Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell, a darkly kaleidoscopic vision of London during the Jack the Ripper killings, which was made into a rather underrated film by the Hughes Brothers starring Johnny Depp. (Seriously, watch “From Hell,” it’s good.) Naturally, “The Raven” will pair Cusack’s Poe with a detective and set the two against the ticking click of Poe’s heart and the pressure to capture the fiendish killer (Screenwriting 101). It is hoped, by me especially, the very mysterious circumstances of Poe’s death will factor into the story.

“The Raven” will be set in Poe’s adopted home of Baltimore, a city which, as the show “The Wire” so ably demonstrated, has the kind of disintegrating social, architectural and cultural atmosphere that is necessary for a good psychological thriller. Think of how cities double as characters in films like “Se7en” and “Zodiac” or the “Third Man” and Michael Mann’s Los Angeles in “Heat.” To see Baltimore in the mid-1850’s through the lens of an author who knew well the psychogeographical dimensions (to borrow a term from Guy Debord) of cities should be a treat.

Whether McTeigue is up to the task visually and narratively is still up in the air. His work on “V for Vendetta” would seem to indicate he understands cities as characters, what with the underground lairs, hidden byways and alleys, and so forth. But, much of the credit has to go to comic writer Alan Moore, whose writing is so rich in detail and always aided by ace illustrations. McTeigue’s work on “Ninja Assassin” was messy, to say the least.  The audience was never able to get a good sense of the landscape, the geography traversed by the characters.

McTeigue also hasn’t exactly displayed the type of facility with narrative that is required for this type of film—the narrative artistry of, say, David Fincher, Carol Reed or Michael Mann. Can he coach actors into delivering performances that are nuanced and three-dimensional, not simply flesh cartoons set amidst glossy stylization? In other words, can he make Edgar Allen Poe come alive even as he’s got one foot in the grave?  “V for Vendetta” had some solid acting, though McTeigue was playing with John Hurt, Stephen Fry (always great), Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving, who all managed to deliver fine performances. But, he somehow managed to make Stephen Rea boring as the cardboard cut-out inspector.

And what of John Cusack as the author himself? There is something of a resemblance in their dark hair, the facial features, especially as the actor’s face has aged. No doubt Cusack is much more handsome than Poe, but this is of little consequence. Look at the photographs of Poe, and what will appear to you is a man who was nothing if not interesting-looking. Cusack is certainly able to tap into the darker impulses of the mind, which is essential in conveying Poe’s beautiful or, one might call it, beatific gloom.

If “The Raven” is to be a great entry into the genre, it will all have to start with the screenplay. If it is well written, vivid and not compromised at any point by meddling execs, then McTeigue should be able to translate the vision from page to screen. He’s no David Fincher, but neither is he a hack.

The film will be produced by Intrepid Pictures and FilmNation and is scheduled to begin shooting later this fall in Serbia. Really, Serbia? That’s where the tax breaks are these days? Well, with the country’s storied history of political killings and war, it should lend the film a nice, murderous vibe.