Film Review: Christian Bale And Henry Melling In Scott Cooper’s ‘The Pale Blue Eye’

Murder early American style is pointedly served cold in The Pale Blue Eye, a fancifully gruesome account of killings at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, circa 1832, that attracts the attention of a certain Edgar Allan Poe, among others. Handsomely made in the dead of winter and generally adept at playing its dramatic cards, the film’s intrigue stems from the unusual academic setting, the ritualistic freakishness of the killings, the intelligence of the characters and the admittedly narrow portrait of a United States still just getting on its feet.

Making his sixth feature, as well as his third starring Christian Bale, director Scott Cooper adeptly juggles the dramatic balls most of the way but drags out the final act out rather than accelerating to its climax, resulting in a drama with good and particular qualities rather than one that’s genuinely exciting. Set to open in a limited number of select locations December 23, the film should attract a solid following when it hits Netflix on January 6.

In the wake of a gruesome murder at West Point, who should be paged but veteran New York City detective Augustus Landor (Bale). The man sometimes looks weary enough to fall asleep on the job but is nonetheless sufficiently intrigued by the circumstances and the gruesomeness of this crime (the victim’s heart has been carved from his chest) that he can’t resist at least taking a first-hand look. Bale’s 19th century sleuth bares a certain resemblance to Robert Mitchum’s seen-it-all cops a century hence, but even this old pro is taken aback in by the uniquely ghastly circumstances of this killing.

Poe, who is charmingly and nerdily played by Harry Melling, memorable as Dudley Dursley in five Harry Potter outings and more recently in The Queen’s Gambit, has come along with Landor to size up the crime for himself. Like some other great detectives of yesteryear, Poe is a major drinker and genuine misfit with a strong mind of his own, and the two peas in a pod hit it off. You also get the feeling that Poe wants and even needs to be around when such events occur, the better to feed his creativity and know his subjects from every angle.

Not long after there is a second murder in Hudson Valley, one in which the victim has been gruesomely hanged and castrated. This is the point where you’d think it time for the film to shift into a higher gear, but instead it jumps into a long flashback devoted to explaining and tidying things up. The actual ending is at first creepy, then momentarily startling, and the actors are all good enough for you to pay real attention even though the film is as a whole comes up a bit short despite a startling climax.

If The Pale Blue Eye proves successful, it would be easy to imagine other films and series about the trials, tribulations and disallowed behavior of young cadets in the early days of West Point or other such institutions before they became world famous military behemoths. In the meantime, the film takes an off-beat, uncommon look at a small institution before it became a familiar name worldwide.

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