'The Pale Blue Eye' review: Gothic thriller held together by solid performances
Courtesy of Netflix
Re-teaming with the director for the third time within the last decade, actor Christian Bale and writer/director Scott Cooper are on the prowl again, however, their latest collaboration marks a departure from “Out of the Furnace” and “Hostiles,” the latter being one of the best modern day westerns of recent memory. Even Cooper’s previous film, “Antlers,” a folklore horror flick that’s stuck with me ever since I saw it, felt like a completely different beast than this current endeavor. (At least Cooper doesn’t make the same movie twice). In his “The Pale Blue Eye,” a gothic thriller with macabre themes, and gloomy lighting, Bale plays a widowed sleuth equal parts haunted by the disappearance of his daughter and known for his deducing capabilities. Legend has it, he was able to pry a confession from a criminal by just staring at them.
While Bale’s detective Augustus Landor may have a notorious reputation for solving crimes and alcoholism, he’s never encountered something quite like the one West Point Military Academy has hired him to investigate. The year is 1830 and the cadets (and the school) are on high alert after a member of their squad was found hanged from a tree. Making things more complicated, the body was also discovered with the heart perfectly removed from their chest. The brooding chilliness fits these early moments as the bleakness and cold setting lay the groundwork for an engaging, if a bit contrived mystery.
But Landor finds an unlikely partner in the form of a cadet who’s been keeping a watchful eye on the investigation and insists the killer must be a “poet.” The ally is one Edgar Allan Poe, played with lockstep verstilty by Henry Melling, which turns this dreary procedural into an offbeat buddy detective story with Landor taking the unpopular cadet under his wing. They take interest in a number of suspects, including the academy’s physician (Toby Jones) and his family, plus some of Poe’s classmates who speak in riddles and have a secret underground club reminiscent of the Dead Poets Society.
It leads to all sorts of twisty revelations and a romantic subplot involving the physician's daughter (Lucy Boynton) who enjoys Poe’s morbid sense of humor and literary wit (he reads excerpts of “Lenore” which provides the title of the movie) that serves as more of a distraction than progress. Meanwhile, Bale seems content going through the detective motions, checking names off the suspect lists while the convoluted mechanics of a late third act shift comes into blurry focus. Indeed, the last leg of “The Pale Blue Eye” isn’t so much an epilogue on the mystery, but of grief and heartache and it allows Bale to unearth a different characterization than previously showcased.
Adapted from the novel by Louis Bayard, “The Pale Blue Eye” is held together by the performances, specifically Melling’s detracted interpretation of the famed poet’s lore and mythology. The layers Melling adds are fun to dissect even if the plotting becomes too routine for its own good (see if you can spot how many red herrings are thrown in the mix). “The Pale Blue Eye” still ends up being a sneaky little chiller that almost falls apart, but manages to recalibrate (barley) and join the ranks of “From Hell,” “The Raven,” and “Sleepy Hollow” as a worthy addition into the occult thriller subgenre.
THE PALE BLUE EYE debuts on Netflix Friday, January 6th.