Scott Cooper expertly adapts Louis Bayard’s novel, with Christan Bale and Harry Melling at the heart of the mystery.
Set in 1830, The Pale Blue Eye sees the military academy thrown into turmoil when the body of Cadet Leroy Fry (Matt Heim) is found hanging from a tree with his heart cut out of his chest. The shocking violence of the attack leads the local authorities to call in former New York constable Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) to investigate the case, hoping to catch the murderer before one victim becomes many. Requiring someone who knows the comings and goings of the cadets that were close to Fry, Landor enlists Poe (Harry Melling) to gather information.
As the unlikely duo begins to unravel the mystery, they quickly discover that there is far more than meets (The Pale Blue) eye at play. Given the nature of Fry’s murder, things begin to point in the direction of the occult. This line of investigation takes them to the doorsteps of Artemus Marquis (Harry Lawtey), whose father happens to be West Point’s resident surgeon, Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones), and whose sister, Lea (Lucy Boynton) happens to have caught Poe’s eye. Lea is a sickly thing, which causes her father and mother Julia (Gillian Anderson) to fret over her constantly, but it doesn’t stop Artemus’ friends from pining after her either. She doesn’t even bat an eye at Poe’s insistence on taking a walk with her through a graveyard, in the midst of increasing concerns about there being a killer on the loose.
Melling, who is perhaps best known for playing Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter franchise, bares no resemblance to that character as he brings to life Poe’s meek, mild-tempered southern gentleman persona. He is exactly what one might expect for a melancholic author who would go on to pen such haunting tales as “The Raven,” “Annabel Lee,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and rise to prominence as someone who dabbles in the odd and macabre. Melling pairs well with Bale, who plays Landor as a man who uses gruff, standoffishness to mask a hidden darkness. In a lot of ways, Poe and Landor are both outsiders—but their seclusion is born out of very different circumstances. As their friendship grows, so too do the secrets being kept between them.
Clocking in at around two hours, The Pale Blue Eye can drag at certain points, which the plot actually demands. It is a slow-moving mystery that leads its audience down narrow alleyways that present only dead ends and more death. Its false starts are like the stuttering beat of a dying heart, coming to an anticipated end—only to jolt back to life with the truth. Whenever you feel confident that you’ve come to a conclusion about who the murderer is and who is dabbling in the occult, the script quickly pulls the rug out from under you. It’s a fun styling for diehard sleuths, but the eleventh-hour reveal might be frustrating for armchair detectives. Once the Pale Blue Eye reaches the precipice, and the truth is uncovered, it won’t soon be forgotten. The motives behind the madness may even feel justified, painting the first hour and a half of the film in an entirely new light.
The film’s cinematography is another highlight, with Masanobu Takayanagi reuniting with Cooper (and Bale) after working with the duo on Out of the Furnace and Hostiles, as well as Black Mass. Takayanagi’s cinematic framing further builds on the somber and haunted atmosphere that Cooper’s direction and screenplay capitalize on. The Pale Blue Eye fully brings to life the essence of Poe’s most dreary works, while folding in a fictionalized interpretation of the author’s potential heroism. Set to the score of Howard Shore, it’s hard to go wrong with the package that Cooper has pulled together.
Ultimately, The Pale Blue Eye is a gothic tale that positions Poe as the damsel in distress, opposite Bale, who embodies the archetype of the burdened and brooding male protagonist. It follows the anticipated beats, trying to lull the audience into a false sense of security, before revealing the true architect behind the tale’s gruesome murders. It may be Cooper’s best historical film, and perhaps that’s because there’s a distinct melancholy to it that is etched into the bones of Virginia’s finest—just like Poe.
The Pale Blue Eye comes to theaters on December 23, 2022, and will be available to stream through Netflix on January 6, 2023.