The Pale Blue Eye, 2022.
Written and Directed by Scott Cooper.
Starring Christian Bale, Harry Melling, Gillian Anderson, Robert Duvall, Timothy Spall, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Lucy Boynton, Toby Jones, Charlie Tahan, Harry Lawtey, Simon McBurney, Hadley Robinson, Joseph Brooks, Brennan Keel Cook, Gideon Glick, Fred Hechinger, Matt Helm, Steven Maier, Jack Irving, John Fetterman, and Gisele Fetterman.
A world-weary detective is hired to investigate the murder of a West Point cadet. Stymied by the cadets’ code of silence, he enlists one of their own to help unravel the case – a young man the world would come to know as Edgar Allan Poe.
Even if Scott Cooper doesn’t necessarily have enough pressing and urgent material to carry a 2+ hour running time, his knock for milking a premise with a chilling atmosphere remains reliable.
Based on a 2003 novel by Louis Bayard, The Pale Blue Eye stars Christian Bale as revered fictional detective Augustus Landor in the early 1830s investigating a West Point outdoors suicide hanging that everyone has reason to believe is a cover-up for murder. More intriguingly, the narrative occurs during Edgar Allen Poe’s cadet time here, allowing the story to insert him as a Watson-like figure to Landor’s Holmes.
Harry Melling plays Poe with macabre eccentricity, instantaneously fascinated upon hearing that the victim’s heart was later somehow removed on the watch of Toby Jones’ coroner Daniel Marquis. He is eager to assign a lyrical reading into the murder, proposing the question of what other reason is there to steal a heart if not to make a poetic statement.
The thought is also on-brand, considering Edgar Allen Poe would go on to become one of the world’s greatest literary minds and detective storytellers, even if this particular mystery is a fabrication. Naturally, this abnormal interest also paints him as slightly suspicious and a suspect in the eyes of Captain Hitchcock and Superintendent Thayer (Simon McBurney and Timothy Spall, respectively), even if he is more than willing to offer Landor assistance deciphering clues and left-behind evidence.
As for Landor, his backstory is tragic; he’s a recent widower with a runaway daughter, with Christian Bale’s portrayal quietly focused and still grieving. Things only get stranger when he momentarily hallucinates seeing his wife at night, while Poe speaks of his dead mother communicating with him during sleep. They also become convinced that such grisly and aberrant murders could be for much darker purposes, seeking out knowledge from Robert Duvall’s Jean Pepe, who points the toward historical books centered on witchcraft and what could be accomplished from removing hearts.
Subsequently, Landor tasks Poe with uncovering and infiltrating a circle of the cadets with a deep interest in the occult, bringing him close to Cadet Randolph Ballenger (Fred Hechinger) and Artemis Marquis (Harry Lawtey), the doctor’s son. Mr. Marquis also has a daughter troubled by seizures, Lea (Lucy Boynton), who develops a mutual attraction with Poe. Nonetheless, there is something off about the entire family, with its dynamics continuously thrust into disarray, matters that aren’t helped by erratic behavior from Daniel’s wife Julie (Gillian Anderson).
For a good portion of its running time, The Pale Blue Eye jumps from establishing one character to the next, but it wouldn’t be fair to label the film boring or without intrigue. The oppressive, snowy environments work in tandem with equally cold characters pushing themselves through unforgiving training circumstances, something that Landor calls out even though it puts him at odds with those that called upon him to solve this case.
And even if many characters are one-note without considerable depth – with the woman characters done the greatest injustice, seemingly used to further plot twists and other character motives rather than exist as fleshed-out characters of their own – Harry Melling’s intellectually creepy turn as Poe keeps the experience from completely freezing over. That’s also one way of saying the epilogue (complete with another set of reveals) is a tough sell but nonetheless makes for broadly compelling thrills. However, it is admittedly clever subversion that does force one to rethink perceptions of these characters coming into the film.
If nothing else, with The Pale Blue Eye, Scott Cooper continues to demonstrate a strong understanding of tension and how to bring out a subdued, top-notch Christian Bale. Add zany performances from Harry Melling to that pedigree. It’s an appealingly icy, moody, twisty, Gothic fiction work rooted in the same themes that Poe explored.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com