A film review by Craig J. Koban January 21, 2023


2022, R, 128 mins.

Christian Bale as Augustus Landor  /  Harry Melling as Edgar Allan Poe  /  Gillian Anderson as Julia Marquis  /  Robert Duvall as Jean-Pepe  /  Timothy Spall as Superintendent Thayer  /  Charlotte Gainsbourg as Patsy  /  Lucy Boynton as Lea Marquis  /  Toby Jones as Dr. Daniel Marquis  /  Charlie Tahan as Cadet Loughborough  /  Harry Lawtey as Artemus Marquis  /  Simon McBurney as Captain Hitchcock

Written and directed by Scott Cooper, based on the novel by Louis Bayard




It's kind of astounding how this latest cinematic marriage between writer/director Scott Cooper and star Christian Bale - who previously teamed up to make the very good OUT OF THE FURNACE and the masterful HOSTILES - seems to by unceremoniously flying under everyone's radars and has been somewhat nonchalantly released on Netflix.  

Their latest endeavor is the chilling murder mystery period thriller THE PALE BLUE EYE (based on Louis Bayard's 2003 novel of the same name) and it contains a deeply tantalizing premise: An early 19th Century veteran detective has to journey out to West Point military academy to solve a grisly murder mystery, and he does so while teaming up with a young outcast cadet named...Edgar Allen Poe (yes, that one!).  The real Poe actually attended West Point for seven months in 1830 before being expelled, but Cooper's film isn't a condensed biopic about the celebrated author's time there.  THE PALE BLUE EYE makes no bones about being a work of pure fiction with fact based elements, and for the most part it's an effectively atmospheric, hauntingly grim, and well-acted whodunit that regrettably loses its way a bit in its final sections. 

Bale is so pitch perfectly cast here as Augustus Landor (not to be confused with STAR WARS' Andor), a brilliant American sleuth with a reputation for getting results that captures the attention of the higher ups at New York's West Point academy, where a ghastly murder of one of the cadets has taken place (it seemingly looks like a suicide via hanging, but foul play clues rear their ugly heads).  Landor would much rather be to himself, seeing as he's a recent widower that has an estranged relationship with his daughter, leaving him living a depressing life all alone in the woods.  Alas, duty calls and he's brought to West Point at the desperate plea of their authorities, with one in particular, Dr. Marquis (a solid Toby Jones), assisting the detective when it comes to autopsy results of the victim (it's also revealed that the dead cadet had his heart ripped out of his chest).  Because Landor is a master problem solver of the Sherlock Holmes variety, he's able to find a few unnerving things about the body, like a note that was tightly clenched in one of his hands and marks on his neck and wrists that suggest anything other than suicide.  

The game's afoot.   

It's at this point in the narrative when THE PALE BLUE EYE gets really interesting.  In an effort to supplement his investigation at the academy, Landor meets and befriends another cadet in Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Melling), who's mostly a disliked loner at West Point that takes a deep interest in Landor's case.  Poe is able to deduce from the note acquired by Landor that its writings - albeit in torn up fragments - hints that the victim was about to engage in a secret rendezvous with an undetermined party.  Stranger things begin to show up later, like a cow and a sheep in the nearby area that have had their hearts torn out as well, tipping off darker forces at play beyond a mere random killer.  While Landor embarks on his hunt for more clues, Poe serves as an inside man, of sorts, for him by infiltrating elements of West Point's more exclusive societies, and he finds himself getting close with Artemus (Harry Lawtey), who just so happens to be Dr. Marquis' son.  During that time, Poe seems smitten and drawn to Artemus' sister in Lea (Lucy Boyton), who seems to be afflicted with an illness that produces random and violent seizures.  Strangeness abounds in this young woman's family, in particular with her mother, Julia (an almost unrecognizable Gillian Anderson), who tries to be a stay at home mother, but seems mentally unstable.  As new clues reveal themselves and suspects accumulate, another poor cadet is found murdered, which springs Landor and Poe to up their game and solve this depraved mystery before more cadet corpses show up. 



The overall look of THE PALE BLUE EYE is fantastic, with Cooper and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi bathing their portrait of 1830s New York and West Point with the oppressively cool hues of winter that bring a brooding hush over the entire tale.  Everything here is purposely desaturated to emphasize the environmental and thematic bleakness on display, and beyond its richly engineered sense of mood and atmosphere the film also feels so immediately and wonderfully lived in.  Cooper really makes viewers feel that they've been instantly transplanted to Hudson Valley of the early 1800s, and everything and everyone looks suitable disheveled, dirty, and unkempt.  I usually loathe it when period films make their characters and settings appear too anachronistically neat, tidy, and clean, but THE PALE BLUE EYE is suitably grime covered and grounded throughout, which allows for proper levels of verisimilitude to simmer (even when the story spirals down into fantastical elements).  I really admired the night times sequences in the film, whether it be in the moon drenched and snow covered vistas that surround West Point (and create an undeniably sense of dread) or the local candle lit watering holes that Landor and Poe frequent.   THE PALE BLUE EYE is beautifully intimidating on a pure visual level.   

On a character front, Landor is a pretty fascinating creation for the usually deep dive method actor in Bale to fully submerge himself in.  This is a man driven into dreary isolation because of his tormented past that was punctuated by tragic family woes, but outside of his self-imposed exile and emotional pain is a man that's a master of deductive reasoning and has emerged as a foremost critical mind in his field.  He's also an eccentric and has a somewhat loose cannon personality, which has the West Point authorities on constant guard.  What's unique here is that Bale - well known for theatrical flourishes with his past roles - refreshingly underplays this man by bringing a steely eyed stoicism and an internalized grittiness.  This is not Bale's first time tapping into period settings and characters (look at his work in the overlooked Christopher Nolan classic THE PRESTIGE), but this is the actor on a whole different performance register, and it's his modulated and understated work here that helps make Landor such a compelling focal point of interest. 

Of course, he has a great partner in crime in Melling's Poe, and one of THE PALE BLUE EYE's most enthralling hooks is - as mentioned - this quirky Batman and Robin-like relationship between Landor and Poe.  They're both sort of lost souls in their own respective rights, and it's their feelings of being social outsiders that brings them together to not only bond, but also pool together their respective skill sets to solve this caper.  Landor also finds some merriment in this aspiring writer's weird quirks, and it's easy to see how the Poe on display here is not best buddy material for others at West Point.  Melling is certainly the more obviously mannered of the pair, but there's something kind of goofily liberating about his grandiose performance here.  With a thick Southern drawl, a childlike innocence and energy to tap into the unknown, and boundless sense of idiosyncratic zeal for his artistic passions, Poe in this film makes for a wonderful foil and companion to the more austere Landor.  Every time that Bale and Melling are on screen together in THE PALE BLUE EYE the film comes alive and their partnership gives the story the forward momentum it needs. 

Copper litters the film with other noteworthy character actors that supplement the performance dynamics of his two leads. I found Jones' strange and perhaps not on the record Dr. Marquis (and his weird family unit) to be oddly enthralling.  His daughter Lea has captured poor love-sick Poe's heart, despite the fact that she's no good for him and is afflicted with "The Falling Sickness."  Harry Lawtey's Artemus seems the most well adjusted as the school's most popular alpha male, but, wow, his mother most definitely has a screw loose (Anderson is commendably off the rails as this unhinged woman that can be genteel at one point and then instantly goes mad with rage at a moments notice).  Timothy Spall is quite good too in the more perfunctory role as the increasingly agitated colonel at West Point that gets more angered by the day at Landor's slow working style (and that more dead students start to pile up).  One character - and actor, for that matter - that's terribly underused in the film is Robert Duvall's Jean Pepe, who Landor and Poe utilize for his expertise in the occult.  If you take a bathroom break during your stream a few times while watching THE PALE BLUE EYE (and your forget to hit pause) then you might just easily miss the veteran actor here altogether. 

And speaking of things occult, it's the film's final act where it kind of lost me.  I usually don't mind it when stories take massively ambitious and bold about-face choices in the final act, but the multiple twists in THE PALE BLUE EYE are almost too outlandish to be taken seriously.  It's not that this film's plunging into aspects of the dark and bizarre are bad, per se, but rather that the handling of these otherworldly elements don't seem organically tied to the entire build-up leading in.  And I'm not entirely sure that the would-be shocking reveal of the real murderer passes all of the smell tests for me.  Let's just say that characters change allegiances on the fly, not to mention that their secret motives rapidly alter course very late in the proceedings (it all seems more like a mechanically generated and contrived cheat than a drastic story segue that feels rightfully earned).  It pains me a bit to say that THE PALE BLUE EYE is the lesser of Cooper/Bale cinematic unions (granted, 2017's fantastic western drama HOSTILES is a hard act to follow).  Even though I didn't really admire how their newest film ended, I was still nevertheless glued to its gothic horror/murder mystery elements for the most part.  As a study in distressing mood and colorfully bizarre personalities, it's hard to label Cooper's effort as a letdown.  And Bale is pretty much an unstoppably watchable force in anything he does.  It's just a shame that THE PALE BLUE EYE played in just a handful of limited cinemas late in 2022 before being officially given a wide release on Netflix this month.  The film is a hell of a lot better than most releases that are dumped to the qualitative cemetery that is this month. 

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