I’ll be the first to admit that period pieces are often a toss-up for me, especially when they’re new and not minted through the trials of previous audiences. I think I blame Bram Stoker’s Dracula for this aversion to them, finding it never lived up to the hype many have placed on it. That hot take aside, the trailer for The Pale Blue Eye certainly drew my attention. I mean, it isn’t every day you get a cast like Christian Bale, Robert Duvall, Timothy Spall, Toby Jones, Harry Melling, Lucy Boynton, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Gillian Anderson helming a best-selling novel from lauded historical fiction writer Louis Bayard. And the subject of involving Edgar Allen Poe as a character in the mystery piqued my interest.
Poe has been used as a character in fiction before, like Ray Bradbury’s The Exiles, Harold Schechter’s Nevermore book series, The 2012 film The Raven, and even Scooby Doo, Supernatural, and Altered Carbon. The Pale Blue Eye wasn’t necessarily treading new ground, but Melling’s portrayal of the young poet during his tenure at West Point certainly crafted a more curious lure. Most will remember Melling as the hero of Hogwarts, Dudley Dursley, in the Harry Potter series, but in the last few years, he’s shined in roles from The Queen’s Gambit to The Tragedy of Macbeth, and I dare say, his iteration of Edgar Allen Poe is among one of the most divergent and best. Melling embodies a more rounded individual than the two-dimensional black-on-black wearing gothic stereotype often seen. With a unique southern accent, genuine sincerity, and a gentle romanticism of the macabre, Melling becomes the fuel that keeps the viewer glued to the screen, waiting for him and Bale to pick up new clues even when their investigation wades into convoluted territory.
Bale plays Augustus Landor (Bale), a detective recovering from the trauma of losing his daughter and has since become more interested in the bottle than in solving new cases. When a West Point cadet is found dead, Landor is called in to assist in the investigation by the institution’s superintendent (Spall) due to the uniquely grizzly condition in which the body was found. Finding the victim’s heart carved from his chest, Landor becomes intrigued but finds his investigation stymied by the West Point cadets’ code of silence. He enlists the help of Poe to aid him, which leads them both down a treacherous path of uncovering a potential satanist cult operating out of the school.
My bias for period pieces was immediately tamed with The Pale Blue Eye. The set, the makeup, the cinematography, and costuming were all utterly stunning. The noir atmosphere grabs you from the start, too. And, when you add the fact that the actors are top-notch, the film starts at a break-neck pace making it easy to get sucked into the world director Scott Cooper (Antlers) has built. But these technical accomplishments can only help the film so much, and it has trouble keeping that speed. By the middle of this one-hundred-and-thirty-minute affair, it slips into feeling like a broadcast television police procedural. In fact, as I began noticing the wintery location, the cold camera tone, the dark plotline, and the presence of Gillian Anderson, I started to consider the Mulder and Scully of it all, specifically the landscape of the last film, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, where the retired pair are tapped to pursue a serial killer with a penchant for stealing body parts. While The Pale Blue Eye isn’t trying to debunk any of the abnormal aspects of Landor’s case, the stonewalling from the cadets feels like a similar hurdle.
The Pale Blue Eye has a lofty amount of smaller sub-plots threaded, a romance between Poe and the daughter (Boynton) of the campus’ pathologist (Jones) developing, her overprotective brother (Industry’s Harry Lawtey), and even the forgotten mystery of Landor’s daughter. Everything gets tied up in a rather neat bow at the end, but getting there requires some effort from the viewer, who is jumped to some clues faster than others rather quickly. The dismissive prowess causes fans of murder mysteries, such as myself, to understand the sleight of hand being tried. Anyone paying attention to the extensively investigated clues and the glossed-over curiosities will begin to piece together The Pale Blue Eye long before the film’s finale.
Speaking of which, the finale brings us back to the same fast pace we have at the start and ultimately makes The Pale Blue Eye feel satisfying, albeit somewhat lackluster, given the best parts of the film become undermined by sometimes-muddled script choices. I think it was worth the watch for the majesty of the production and the performances, although I was disappointed having figured out the film’s final act and epilogue far before their twists were meant to be revealed. So, even though the film ends well, it still feels undercut by how much further ahead the audience is.
It feels accurate to assume that Netflix decided to release The Pale Blue Eye to theaters last month as part of the awards season consideration films, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Academy does nominate it in a few categories. Cooper’s films have been recognized by the Academy in the past, writing and directing Jeff Bridges Oscar performance in Crazy Heart, and nominated by several other prestigious associations for his films Black Mass, Out of the Furnace, and Hostiles. Cooper knows what he’s doing as a writer and director, though, in the case of The Pale Blue Eye, I think he tried to incorporate too much material from the book. The result becomes a rigorously dense middle bookended by a swift beginning and finish.
The Pale Blue Eye is currently showing in select theaters and streaming on Netflix.