The Pale Blue Eye (currently streaming on Netflix) is a gothic mystery with a leisurely pace, tons of atmosphere and a very good cast. The story is fine (though more interesting in hindsight), the characters are only developed as much as they need to be to advance the plot and the mystery is intermittently compelling. The production design and tone create a convincing sense of unease and the direction is solid, if unspectacular. This is a decent, ultimately forgettable, whodunit, pretty fitting for an early January streaming release. It is a welcome diversion, assuming you enjoy dark mysteries or Edgar Allan Poe.
It is the middle of a gloomy winter in 1830 and a murder has been committed at the United States Military Academy. A man was hung and then, later on, had his heart cut from his chest. Master detective Augustus Landor is called upon to investigate and quickly enlists cadet Edgar Allan Poe to assist him in solving the crime.
The plot contains many secrets it saves for late in the game reveals, which means the depths of the story’s ideas do not come into full focus until the end. It plays fair, even if it misleads, making it a bit more than it seems. The movie is based on a 2003 novel by Louis Bayard and has been adapted by director Scott Cooper. Cooper is good at making a slow pace feel necessary in projects like Out of the Furnace and Hostiles and the same is true here. The protagonist takes his time investigating, but is clever and thorough. A faster-moving thriller would have thrown everything out of whack. There is so much texture here that it makes up for the formulaic nature of the screenplay and the inclusion of a real-life person that is stuck somewhere between an engaging historical “what if” and a distracting gimmick.
Christian Bale (who also produced) stars as Landor, a quiet, introspective, brilliant detective, who supposedly once coaxed a confession from a suspect using a cold stare. Bale is a captivating actor because he always suggests that there is more going on in his character’s head than the audience can see. In this instance, Landor is an alcoholic still grieving a sad past, yet he is tremendously skilled at piecing together clues. This is Bale’s third pairing with Cooper (following the two previously mentioned). Though it is the least of their collaborations, Bale is impressive in the way he brings the role to life while not seeming to do a lot.
The showier part belongs to Harry Melling (best known as Harry Potter’s cousin, Dudley). His Edgar Allan Poe is a strange man, fascinated by puzzles and socially awkward. This might be accurate of the real man, but it feels awfully convenient for the plot. He is able to see without being seen and can pluck the answers Landor is looking for out of very little evidence. The scenes where they interact with each other, discuss clues and sort of bond are exciting, lifting the movie up whenever it really needs it.
The cast also includes Timothy Spall, Toby Jones, Simon McBurney and an underused Robert Duvall. Just their presence helps make the material more interesting. It is unlikely people remember The Pale Blue Eye even a few months from now. Still, it seems like the type of movie that, years from now, when film lovers are looking over Christian Bale’s filmography, will inspire an “oh yeah, I kind of remember that. It was actually all right.” It may not be memorable; however, it is definitely all right.
3¼ out of 5
Christian Bale as Augustus Landor
Harry Melling as Edgar Allan Poe
Timothy Spall as Superintendent Thayer
Toby Jones as Dr. Daniel Marquis
Lucy Boynton as Lea Marquis
Harry Lawtey as Cadet Artemus Marquis
Gillian Anderson as Mrs. Julia Marquis
Simon McBurney as Captain Hitchcock
Directed and Written by Scott Cooper