Set during Edgar Allan Poe’s brief time as a military cadet in 1830, The Pale Blue Eye imagines the young poet turning into a detective at West Point. Edgar (Harry Melling) joins Augustus Landor (Christian Bale), who is called down to the US military academy to handle a delicate manner by the higher-up authorities. A second-year cadet Leroy Fry has been found dead, after an apparent suicide. Landor, a former New York City constable, known for solving high-profile cases seems just the man for the job. (Also read: Christian Bale reveals being paid less than his make-up artists for American Psycho: ‘They were laughing at me’)
Adapted from Louis Bayard’s novel of the same name, writer-director Scott Cooper sets the tone for this moody drama. Set during the relentless winters of the Hudson Valley, the bleak backdrop and pristine snow hides the gruesome natures of the murders unfolding in the film. As Landor investigates, he unearths possible ties to the occult after it is discovered that Leroy’s heart was removed from his body after death. He involves the eager and striking young man into his fold, asking for his help as the inside man on campus.
The film employs this fictional version of the famous poet, and depicts Edgar as a sensitive but intelligent young man, who is eager to take the role of detective with Landor. Landor and Edgar are the driving force in the story in The Pale Blue Eye with their inquiries into the case, which grows murkier as they discover a ‘bad bunch’ of cadets alongside Fry. Another murder and a missing persons case adds to their pile, but the film still stays with the lead actors and their banter as they get closer to discovering, who is behind these grisly deaths.
However, this central mystery remains a bit humdrum, even as terms of immortality, witch hunters and occult rituals are introduced. Edgar becomes fascinated by a pretty young woman Lea (Lucy Boynton), the daughter of Dr Marquis who works at West Point. But it is the broody detective and his mysterious past that we’d like to delve more into. The film, naturally, saddles him with a torturous past. Landor is a widower, who is yet to get over being abandoned by his young daughter Mattie as well. His past adds to the moodiness of the feature.
If The Pale Blue Eye were able to balance out the main suspense alongside the character developments of Landor and Poe, the film would have been far more interesting. Christian’s weathered face and his silent observations as Landor only hint at his loneliness. Harry matches Christian here in his performance, getting into the character of the brilliant poet who is easily swayed by those around him. The younger actor, known for his roles in the Harry Potter franchise and the series The Queen’s Gambit, has the more compelling role in the film.
The ensemble cast features the who’s who of talent from both sides of the pond, including Gillian Anderson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Toby Jones, Simon McBurney, Timothy Spall and Robert Duvall. It was great to see the 92-year-old veteran Robert in a small part as a knowledgeable man who aids the investigation.
Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi adds that much needed bit of warmth in the interiors of the feature, with long taper candles and roaring fires. The exteriors are mostly foggy and austere. The film includes the obvious references to the poet’s work – with mentions of ravens, hearts and clever wordplay, but ultimately, it is more interested in Edgar’s character and his moral dilemma. The final reveal is a bit underwhelming as well.
Director Scott starts off strong, but fails to sustain the pace in the 128-minute feature. Netflix’s The Pale Blue Eye only works because of the gripping performances by Christian and Harry.