Director Scott Cooper‘s The Pale Blue Eye is a subtle, restrained work of suspense for fans of the slow-burn murder mystery genre. Even its most exciting action scene comes across as more realistically perilous than cinematically frightening. The film, which reimagines the real-life Edgar Allan Poe during his younger years at West Point, has its blemishes, but these offenses do not include Harry Melling, who occasionally looks like a touched-up vintage photograph of Poe, or Christian Bale, who stars as Augustus Landor, the damaged detective desperate to control the chaos.
Based on Louis Bayard’s 2006 novel, The Pale Blue Eye, the criminal act which incites the plot is instantly riveting. In the winter of 1830, West Point Military Academy Cadet Leroy Fry (Matt Heim) is found hanging from a tree branch, torturously on the verge of touching the ground, and when the corpse is brought in for medical examination, someone sneaks in to cut out his heart.
The plot thickens when Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones) proves an uneven medical examiner, and Landor is reluctantly called out of retirement for the case, providing a more thorough post-mortem. This tells the viewer there is always more beneath the surface if you dig your fingernails into it, and adds to the subliminal tingles. West Point staffers Capt. Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) and Superintendent Col. Sylvanus Thayer (Timothy Spall) want quick answers, because the honor of the Academy is at stake during congressional hearings, adding greater weight to the underlying tension. Very few things come quickly in this investigation. Suspense, however, makes its appearance instantly.
A pervasive atmosphere of mystery is palpable the moment the film opens on a hanging corpse. Blatant intrigue captures your interest within the first two minutes of dialogue. The audience is immediately asking difficult questions, looking for the unseen, taking part in the probing intelligence. The anticipation is not limited to merely how much or little information we get on the dead cadet, but how little we seem to know about the esteemed constable who opens proceedings with a beer.
One thing we are sure of by the end of the opening interview: detective Augustus Landor is not going to abstain from alcohol for the remainder of the case. Bale doesn’t sneer, or make any overt show of insubordination, but he telegraphs his unregulated intentions clearly. If the most interesting music comes in the spaces between notes, Bale slips an unheard punchline in the middle of a straightforward dramatic delivery.
It’s easy to see why Landor likes Poe so much after their first meeting. The cadet may very well already be able to drink him under the table and knows where to get the best education: barrooms. Melling is an eccentric Cadet Fourth Classman E.A. Poe, occasionally as dark as the future writer he will be, other times completely disarming in his naked enthusiasm for the finer things. Melling’s rapturous reading of the line “ah, books” is as much fun as his recitation of a naughty limerick after downing glass after glass of illegal hooch.
Melling’s interpretation of the young military student hints at the budding literary legend on a precipice. The real-life Poe’s time at West Point has the makings of a feature film in itself. He intentionally got himself kicked out for delinquency of duty. He’d already served in the military, quite reluctantly, and he had things to write. It is no wonder the character of Landor takes to him so easily. Rules and regulations are the enemy, and they are both encamped.
The Pale Blue Eye is a buddy film, and Melling and Bale twist the traditional chemistry of mentorship camaraderie. Landor is the gruff, but reliable detective. He’s jaded, charmless, tactless, harbors grudges against the very institution he has been called in to assist, and has no problem voicing them. Poe and Landor are both outsiders masking a hidden darkness and deep secrets. Landor is a recent widower whose daughter, Mattie (Hadley Robinson), has gone missing. The orphaned Poe talks to his dead mother, and has had words with each of the growing number of casualties on the Academy’s Gothic grounds. Enough words to be a possible suspect. The character-driven design of the arc explores seclusion, disillusionment, corruption, and loss.
This veers the film toward a Poe origin story. Besides being a poet, the writer invented the detective novel genre, but is best known for his overwhelming devotion to tragic heroines. We recognize Lea Marquis (Lucy Boynton) as a stand-in for Annabel Lee, in that kingdom by the sea, or in this case the Hudson, from the very first cough. When she and Edgar speak, the film enters the world of melancholy. This adds dimension to her seemingly perfect and resolutely handsome brother, Artemus Marquis (Harry Lawtey), whose attributes are proudly heralded by their mother, the wife of the medical examiner. Julia Marquis, as played by Gillian Anderson, is an enigma with enough overbite to gnaw into subconscious horrors.
Nothing plays on the dark regions of the imagination as nimbly as conspiratorial deviltry. For this reviewer, the story becomes irresistibly fascinating when the anatomically correct clues point to ritualistic dismemberments, and occult expert Jean-Pepe (Robert Duvall) opens his library. He’s got everything but the book Dean Corso was looking for in The Ninth Gate, and when he tosses a heavy volume of French arcane knowledge at Poe for translation, it is an unexpected treasure. Not merely because of all the terrifying gems to be found in sacred books of profane illumination, but the change in the air. For all the dark matters being discussed, the collective deliveries of each actor in the room are positively gleeful in exploring their morbid fascinations.We have to go along with it, because any story told by the legendary Duvall is one to take seriously.
The clues come fast, but the story moves slow. The combination fuels the off-kilter cognitive dissonance, but also forces the audience to pay attention. The quieter the film gets, the more we have to listen, because the clues come with emotional baggage left for the viewer to unpack. A particular cutaway of Landor’s daughter is rendered absolutely ambiguous, the audience has to put it into context, and interpretations can get away from themselves. This is the fun of murder mystery watching, one eye is always searching for the detail which will give everything away.
The film is very generous with false conclusions, rash accusations, and atmospheric coincidences. Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography enshrines the haunted dreariness, from the foggy woods to the craggy cliffs overlooking waters emptied of all color like a body drained of blood. Even the costumes, designed by Kasia Walicka-Maimone, match the wearers’ motivational subterfuge.
The Pale Blue Eye should have ended earlier, an offense so grievous it robs a star from a stellar picture. Although it is a foregone conclusion in the book, the postscript runs like it was tacked on by a marketing executive. The necessary foreshadowing is hidden too deep onscreen. Without the proper buildup of establishing clues, the reveal feels contrived, and the film deserves much better than that.
The Pale Blue Eye is a flawed gem in a Tiffany setting. It evokes the eeriness inherent in Poe’s work, the thumbscrew tension of detective examinations, and the romantic despair of Gothic literature. Everything is laid out with enough evidence on exhibit to close the case, but enough artistry to pry it further open. Be prepared for active viewing, it’s worth the effort.
The Pale Blue Eye is on Netflix now.