There’s a clever misdirect in the very nature of The Pale Blue Eye. When you hear about a period murder mystery, one featuring Edgar Allen Poe, you imagine something brooding and dark. Well, the film doesn’t shy away from darkness or the macabre, even getting a bit gnarly at times, but Poe? He’s not that aspect. In making the procedural a bit of a Poe original story as well, we get to see what he was like in his early days. It lends a bit extra to what otherwise is a good whodunit, but with this element, it becomes more than a bit more memorable.
The Pale Blue Eye is not trying to reinvent the wheel, but it is seeking to be the sort of cinema grownups used to be very attracted to. By nature of what tends to be consumed these days, that makes it almost a novelty, but it’s very much a throwback. Filled to the brim with atmosphere, it also looks great, hooking you in with its time and place in short order.
When a cadet at West Point in 1830 is found dead, suicide is initially suspected. However, once the body arrives at the morgue, something more sinister becomes apparent when Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones) discovers during an autopsy that the young man’s heart has been removed, and carefully, too. Fearing that the newfound military academy won’t be able to sustain a scandal of this nature, West Point leaders like Superintendent Thayer (Timothy Spall) and Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) employ a local detective in Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) to quietly solve the murder.
Making some initial progress, Landor eventually runs into the brick wall that is the cadets’ code of silence. Hoping to get around the issue, he recruits the help of an eccentric cadet. Landor hasn’t chosen just a random cadet, however, he’s picked a young man with no great love for the the military, an ability to decode, and a surprising knack for poetry. The cadet? None other that Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling). Together they pursue the murderer, as bodies begin to pile up, with one twist after the next awaiting them…perhaps even one too many
Christian Bale and Harry Melling are the standouts here. The likes of Toby Jones, Simon McBurney, and Timothy Spall are fine, but they’re playing somewhat stock roles. Bale is on familiar ground, but he’s such a good actor you just can enjoy him knocking in easy runs. As for Melling, he’s the surprise, putting forth the charm and romance of a Poe in his earlier days. Bale and Melling share a nice little chemistry, too. Supporting players include Gillian Anderson, Lucy Boynton, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and even a cameo from Robert Duvall.
Filmmaker Scott Cooper tends to make a sort of movie that few are making anymore. Usually, that means the focus is on character, and while there’s no shortage of that here, this is his most atmospheric work since Out of the Furnace. The time and the place feel haunting and lived in. It’s not horror, but by the look of it, it easily could be. Composer Howard Shore and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi pair well with Cooper’s direction. If there’s a flaw, it’s that his script, perhaps beholden to the source material, makes a questionable choice in the third act. It’s not a crippling blow, but it undercuts a bit of what I had liked about The Pale Blue Eye so far, before righting the ship at the very end.
The Pale Blue Eye is a solid procedural from a solid director, and you know what? Sometimes that’s enough. It has atmosphere to burn and strong acting, with a premise that sucks you in. If the ending is a little less clever than Cooper and company think it is, it’s still far from a misfire. Those looking for adult entertainment (not that kind, you perverts) can do a whole hell of a lot worse than this one when it hits Netflix…