REVIEW: The Pale Blue Eye (dir. Scott Cooper)

Certificate: 15 (strong gory images, threat, violence, sexual violence). Running Time: 130 mins. UK Distributor: Netflix

WHO’S IN IT?

Christian Bale, Harry Melling, Gillian Anderson, Lucy Boynton, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Toby Jones, Simon McBurney, Timothy Spall, Robert Duvall, Hadley Robinson, Joey Brooks, Brennan Keel Cook, Gideon Glick, Fred Hechinger, Matt Helm, Steven Maier, Charlie Tahan

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Scott Cooper (director, writer, producer), Christian Bale, John Lesher, Tyler Thompson (producers), Howard Shore (composer), Masanobu Takayanagi (cinematographer), Dylan Tichenor (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In 1830, a detective (Bale) teams with young cadet Edgar Allan Poe (Melling) to solve a gruesome murder…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THE PALE BLUE EYE?

Murder-mysteries are back, baby! Last year, in particular, there was an embarrassment of riches for fans of the sleuth sub-genre, with not just Rian Johnson’s supremely entertaining Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery winning over audiences, but also the more screwball and ever so slightly meta See How They Run and even a bit of classic Poirot with Kenneth Branagh’s take on Death on the Nile. For my money, though, Glass Onion was by far the more engaging mystery out of those examples, because while one could argue that the “who” of its whodunnit may not be the most difficult to figure out, the journey towards its reveal was filled with genuine suspense, unexpected reveals, and bucketloads of humour that ranked among some of the funniest in a movie from the last twelve months.

But then, there’s The Pale Blue Eye, a much more solemn and bleak murder-mystery than any of those previous examples combined, and a reminder that the classic whodunnit template doesn’t always have to include a Southern-accented Daniel Craig to carry its own central mystery. In fact, there isn’t much to carry it at all, for it is a somewhat mundane procedural which has plenty of interesting ideas, as well as a few standout performances, but sadly few of those matter when you’re just not invested all that much, which I unfortunately wasn’t.

Set in 1830, amidst the snow-covered landscape of West Point, New York, we meet out lead detective, the world-weary Augustus Landor (Christian Bale), as he’s being summoned to the nearby United States Military Academy, where the body of a young cadet has been found hanged, and with his heart cut out. Landor is tasked with finding who could have possibly committed such a repellent crime, but when he fails to get anywhere with the investigation, and as more bodies begin to pile up, he acquires the assistance of a fellow cadet to help him solve the case. The cadet, incidentally, happens to be none other than a young Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling), whose expert literary skills and unusual fascination with death prove to be a valuable asset for the detective, who eventually comes across a disturbing link with the murders and certain faculty members of the Academy.

The project had been in development for several years, with director and writer Scott Cooper working on his adaptation of Louis Bayard’s novel of the same name for nearly a decade, so it’s hard to say that The Pale Blue Eye is lacking in terms of passion or ambition on behalf of the filmmaker. It is a well-made film, drenched in Masanobu Takayanagi’s bleak cinematography that simultaneously makes you feel a mixture of glum and freezing cold (there are so many shots of snow that one can look at without feeling the need to put on a jacket), and the period-accurate set and costume designs add a neat level of sophistication to an otherwise grim atmosphere. There are also some good turns by a rather impressively assembled ensemble cast; in addition to Bale, reuniting with Cooper for the third time after Out of the Furnace and Hostiles, there are plenty of “ooh, I know that actor” moments littered throughout, from character actors like Toby Jones and Simon McBurney, to even the odd screen legend such as Robert Duvall, who briefly pops up for a couple of scenes.

The real standout, not just of the cast but the entire film as a whole, is Harry Melling’s turn as author-in-waiting Edgar Allan Poe. The actor, who has added plenty of strong credits to his name over recent years (undoubtedly to move on from his most recognisable role as Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter movies), delivers an outstanding turn that’s at once empathetic and mysterious, perfectly capturing Poe’s well-spoken but also deeply unsettling posture, with the thousand-yard stare of someone who’s clearly seen some stuff that forever haunts his waking dreams. Melling’s performance, and his portrayal of the famed literary figure, is the MVP of The Pale Blue Eye, enough to where you almost wish that he were the main detective solving the mystery instead of merely being the Watson to Bale’s Sherlock.

Unfortunately, the fact that it is Bale we’re primarily following here does lead to one of the film’s biggest problems: Landor just isn’t that interesting of a character, with not a fraction of the kind of charm, personal intrigue, or even backstory that often makes a lead detective so compelling. This is the kind of sleuth character whose sole function is to investigate the central crime, and that’s about it; anything else that is revealed about him is either delivered via awkward exposition dumps, or brief flashbacks that add very little until the very last moment, at which point there’s little reason left to care. It’s even more distracting how little of an impression that Bale’s Landor makes whenever Melling shows up to steal entire scenes away from him, leaving the viewer far more drawn to his Poe than the actual lead because he at least has a sense of intrigue and charisma to him.

Not even the highly talented Bale can seem to add enough dimensions to make his character interesting enough for the audience to follow along with this mystery, which itself suffers because you’re too busy looking at all the inconsistencies and holes in this plot that an engaging protagonist should provide a decent distraction from. It’s not a particularly engaging mystery anyway, because a lot of it is relatively easy to piece together once you’re introduced to certain suspicious-looking individuals, and it climaxes with set-pieces and last-minute reveals that range from completely ludicrous to downright nonsensical.

Had the movie been reasonably entertaining from the get-go, then maybe The Pale Blue Eye would have earned its right to go in some rather ridiculous directions. However, while no-one can fault the passion that’s been put into making it, this is a murder-mystery that is, for the most part, better left unsolved.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Pale Blue Eye is a handsomely made, but ultimately unengaging murder-mystery thriller, which despite some strong filmmaking by Scott Cooper and a slew of memorable performances, particularly an outstanding Harry Melling as a young Edgar Allan Poe, fails to generate a strong enough sense of intrigue in its central investigation, as well as a bland sleuth lead that poor Christian Bale is saddled with.

The Pale Blue Eye is now available to stream on Netflix.

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