A dour slow burn of a movie that never catches fire — even when a crime scene is set ablaze — Netflix’s period procedural The Pale Blue Eye has the curiosity factor of being a murder mystery that doubles as an Edgar Allan Poe origin story. Based on the 2003 novel by Louis Bayard, this third collaboration between writer-director Scott Cooper and Christian Bale (following Out of the Furnace and Hostiles) is far stronger on gothic atmosphere than suspense. It’s capably acted and visually effective, with lots of mist-shrouded woodlands and chiaroscuro interiors, but the storytelling is stilted and uninvolving.
Bale stars as the fictional figure of Augustus Landor, a widowed former police detective living alone in a remote cottage in Hudson Valley, New York, in 1830, with a strong reputation for breaking difficult cases and cracking codes.
When a cadet from the still-fledgling U.S. Miliary Academy at West Point turns up dead — hung from a tree with his heart surgically removed — the institution’s brass, Colonel Thayer (Timothy Spall) and Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney), enlist Landor to investigate. Rumblings from Washington about senators wanting to shut down the academy make it imperative that the matter be solved in haste and with discretion.
While questioning the dead man’s fellow cadets, Landor encounters the young Poe (Harry Melling), whose keen intellect leads to the detective roping him in as an unofficial deputy on the case.
Poe at that time was a published poet but not yet the master of the macabre whose mysteries are often credited as the invention of detective fiction. Bayard’s novel speculates on events that steered him in that direction, feeding his fascination with death, dark mysticism and doomed romance. While he’s partial to a drop, Poe is portrayed not as the seedy boozer of his later life but as a bright young wit with a curlicued turn of phrase and a penchant for florid gesticulation.
Melling, with his twig-like physicality and cartoon gargoyle of a head, plays up the flamboyant manner with the lilting twang of Poe’s Virginia years. That exaggeration comes and goes, probably suggesting it was to some degree the pose of an oddball misfit bullied by the more conventionally masculine cadets at the academy. But it reads as inconsistency in the performance. The role reportedly was first offered to Timothée Chalamet (who worked with Cooper and Bale in Hostiles); he might have had the charisma to pull it off. But Melling lacks command, particularly when Poe’s impetuous heart leads him to court danger.
There’s an element of father-son surrogacy in the evolving friendship between Poe and Landor, but neither Cooper nor the actors manage to give it much poignancy. Melling smothers his role in studied eccentricities, while Bale — his Landor is a tormented loner with a straggly beard and hair that looks like he cuts it himself with a knife — goes so deep into his brooding, inward-facing outsider mode that his character doesn’t really connect with anyone else. That includes Charlotte Gainsbourg in the underwritten part of Patsy, the sad-eyed local tavern barmaid who occasionally shares his bed. Bale also has a few big shouty scenes that feel too contemporary, despite the attention to period accuracy in the language.
Apparently, there were no American actors WASPy enough to play the crusty ruling class in and around the academy, so Cooper has stacked the cast predominantly with Brits.
In addition to Spall, wearing his scowling, pinched-face imperiousness familiar from Spencer, and chameleonic stage actor McBurney, all flinty antagonism, there’s also Toby Jones as Dr. Daniel Marquis, a cagey local medic. His nosy society matron wife Julia is played by Gillian Anderson in one of her more mannered turns. Along with their arrogant alpha-male cadet son Artemus (Harry Lawtey) and sickly but alluring daughter Lea (Lucy Boynton), the entire Marquis family is tainted by dark secrets. Poe’s whirlwind feelings for Lea come out of nowhere but serve to compromise his judgment as the pieces of the puzzle come together.
All this no doubt was more gripping on the page in Bayard’s novel. As retold by Cooper it remains sluggish, even when dead livestock starts turning up with missing hearts, another cadet meets a nasty end, and Landor’s visit to an old friend versed in the occult (the great Robert Duvall, slumming it in a disposable role) uncovers disturbing black magic rituals. Along with the large chunk of running time still remaining, the limply anticlimactic fiery outcome of the investigation makes it obvious that further revelations are still to come.
Lingering sorrows from Landor’s recent past are revisited as a revenge element comes to light, creating ethical conflicts for Poe. None of which, sadly, is terribly interesting.
The Pale Blue Eye attempts to spin a compelling yarn in which the dead continue to speak to the living in various ways, molded into a fictionalized rumination on what made Edgar Allan Poe the writer he became. That makes the film admirably ambitious. It’s one of those handsomely mounted period pieces that should get under your skin; instead, it slumps from scene to scene with little momentum or tension, remaining just this side of inert.
The distinguished cast notwithstanding, the real star is Masanobu Takayanagi’s bleak and chilly cinematography, with a vein of malevolence laced throughout the imagery that’s fed by Howard Shore’s stately orchestral score. But those two elements end up doing a disproportionate amount of the atmospheric work, highlighting the deficiencies of the writing, direction and performances.
Production companies: Cross Creek Pictures, in association with Le Grisbi Productions
Cast: Christian Bale, Harry Melling, Gillian Anderson, Lucy Boynton, Robert Duvall, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Toby Jones, Harry Lawtey, Simon McBurney, Hadley Robinson, Timothy Spall, Joey Brooks, Brennan Cook, Gideon Glick, Fred Hechinger, Matt Helm, Jack Irving, Steven Maier, Charlie Tahan
Director-screenwriter: Scott Cooper, based on the novel by Louis Bayard
Producers: Scott Cooper, Christian Bale, Tyler Thompson, John Lesher
Executive producers: Tracey Landon, Dylan Weathered, Louis Bayard, Chris Sharp, Jennifer Lamb, Emily Salveson, Ryan Smith
Director of photography: Masanobu Takayanagi
Production designers: Stefania Cella
Costume designer: Kasia Walicka-Maimone
Music: Howard Shore
Editor: Dylan Tichenor
Visual effects supervisor: Jake Braver
Casting: Francine Maisler
2 hours 8 minutes