With The Pale Blue Eye, Scott Cooper makes yet another case for preserving the modern western and re-contextualizing its romantic history. In this case, he adapts Louis Bayard’s 2003 novel about a hardboiled 1830s detective who enlists the help of an eccentric young Edgar Allen Poe, years before his literary prowess would dub him the father of the detective story. It’s almost a shame a film this wide in its scope, then, gets relegated to a winter Netflix release, though it will arrive in select theaters on December 23 for those willing to brave the cold.
Christian Bale plays the seasoned detective, Augustus Landor, who lives in sustained depression since his daughter left him. A series of murders begin to plague West Point, the military academy in New York, and Landor reluctantly searches for a serial killer well over a century before the term was even conceived. Harry Melling plays Poe in what is such inspired casting, it’s a wonder Netflix didn’t stretch Bayard’s source material into a limited series featuring Poe as a week-to-week detective in his youth. Keep Gillian Anderson, Toby Jones, and Robert Duvall in the mix and you pretty much have the next big streaming binge.
Opposites certainly attract when it comes to the film’s central duo. Landor’s grizzled exterior hardly tolerates Poe’s antics, at least at first, and the film thoroughly utilizes the audience’s knowledge of famous stories and themes lurking in the young poet’s work to come. Finally, a film this awards season for your English major friend who still conducts weekly writing groups a decade after graduation. They’ll feast on Melling’s attention to detail when it comes to Poe’s mannerisms and biographical origins, knowing when to go full caricature with the performance and when to hold back just right.
“The dead haunt us because we love them too little.”
The mystery itself is mostly an overlong limp to the obvious, though there might be at least one intriguing subversion to be had. It just takes forever to get to the goods, is the issue, and the ultimate point of the whole thing can be muddled at best and vaguely occult-adjacent at worst. There’s no shortage of pained investigators butting heads with authority while getting overly invested, perhaps for the sake of solving the puzzle itself. It’s a prototypical mystery about the prototypical mystery, and that’s not exactly clever when simply laid out plain.
But it is entertaining, at least. Bale sells a stoically depressed thinker as well as expected, and it helps that his rapport with Melling’s Poe is consistently electric. Cooper loves to use complexity to convey simple, honest truths, but in The Pale Blue Eye, he falls just short of following through on either. There’s a humble message in here somewhere about the immortality of Poe as a literary figure, struggling against the desires of a sadistic killer craving life through death. The Pale Blue Eye arrives at that destination, but without much on its person to unpack. Aside from a contemplative, if not surface-level slow burn that’s as cold as they come.
The Pale Blue Eye opens in select theaters on December 23 and will begin streaming on Netflix starting January 6. Watch the trailer here.
Featured image courtesy of Netflix
THE PALE BLUE EYE - 6.5/10