The Pale Blue Eye, Scott Cooper’s latest, sees a homicide detective (Christian Bale) teaming up with a young Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Melling) to solve a series of murders at West Point in 1830. Based on a novel by Louis Bayard, the film is something of a fictionalized origin story for Poe’s writing career while also serving as a gothic murder mystery in its own right.
Bayard’s Poe believes himself to be haunted by his mother’s ghost, and his pedantic nature sets him in opposition to other cadets at the military academy. His alienation relative to his peers eventually puts him in suspicion as the body count around the academy stacks up.
Melling’s performance as Poe is the high point of the film, as Melling seems incapable of giving anything but his all to his roles (his turn in Please Baby Please was one of my favorite performances of 2022). And his rapport with Bale — easily the most crucial variable to this film functioning effectively — is quite good.
All the same, the film cannot help but founder under the weight of its languid procedural elements and lugubrious romantic subplots. While Melling and Bale have fine chemistry, the same cannot be said of Poe and his romantic fascination Lea Marquis (Lucy Boynton). And, despite Bale’s distressed reactions shots, the lead detective’s flashbacks to a family he no longer has does little to add to the film’s emotional stakes.
As for the central mystery, it winds up sufficiently, marking the deliberately-paced story with the pall of death just as the plot appears to begin spinning its wheels. More often than not, though, the film is dramatically inert. Even when it takes a wild turn in the third act, it comes off stiff. Then there is the subsequent, more disconcerting plot twist involving the use of an assault and its tragic fallout as a plot device. All in all, these movements in the story, for various reasons, fail to achieve the intended effect.
For all of its narrative faults, The Pale Blue Eye is sharply captured. DP Masanobu Takayanagi, a frequent Cooper collaborator, makes good use of the bright white expanses of the snowy West Point grounds and the shadowy interiors to construct a film which is much more appealing in visuals than it is in story. Cooper has always been, for me, a capable director who produces more than competent work. As with his other films, though, The Pale Blue Eye is material that is missing something — some intangible piece of the puzzle that would render it remarkable.
The Pale Blue Eye: C
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)