Movie Review: The Pale Blue Eye sends a haunted Bale to investigate gothic killings
A tormented detective and a fictional Edgar Allan Poe team up to solve gothic killings in this period melodrama.
One thing a movie watcher might not be looking for during the actual bleak midwinter is bleaker midwinter on the screen. As a director, Scott Cooper has achieved a reputation for handling the tough textures of the western; now he applies that expertise to this enjoyable if entirely preposterous historical mystery thriller. The chilliness fits the story, of course. At the West Point Academy, a cadet is discovered not just dead—by hanging, it is first presumed—but with his heart cut out. The extremely spooked overseers of the school, fearful of scandal that might strike a death blow to the place, enlist a retired lawman to investigate.
Adapted by Cooper from a 2003 bestselling novel by Louis Bayard, an author renowned for his ingenious reimagining of real-life historical figures and famous fictional characters, “The Pale Blue Eye” is one of those mysteries that features such a limited cast of characters/suspects that its main narrative seems a feint of sorts--and it is. To wit: If you’re wondering why an actor as formidable as Bale signed-on to a role in which he solves a couple of murders and contributes to the development of a great American literary figure and not much else, well, he didn’t. It’s only after the supposedly central mystery is solved that “The Pale Blue Eye” fully commits to its actual business, serving up in full a tale of loss and wrong-headed resolution.
Augustus Landor, played by Bale, is a solitary “cottager,” a widower whose daughter left his home a couple of years prior. He likes to drink, has a sleeping partner in a warm-hearted tavern owner (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and is prone to melancholy despite his dry wit. He is reputed to have once gotten a confession from a criminal using nothing more than a “piercing look.” Bale’s characterisation, subtle and slightly enigmatic throughout, blooms... and eventually sears. This film honours the real-life figure who would, among other things, become the arguable creator of the American detective story, while in its own right turning a shudder-inducing light on the darker recesses of the human heart.
Removing the hearts of corpses—there will be another—is suggestive of quite a bit. And soon Landor is sniffing into matters of devil worship. One cadet who’s been observing the detective doesn’t find that lead a credible one. The killer, he insists, was “a poet.” This cadet is one Edgar Allan Poe, a sensitive outcast and of course a future poet himself. Uncannily played by Harry Melling, Poe is taken under Landor’s wing. The duo takes a particular interest in the academy’s doctor, Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones), and his family. This clan could give the Addams a run for their money. Mrs Marquis is given to breaking the household china at less than a moment’s notice. Daughter Lea (Lucy Boynton) plays the piano beautifully and is very breathy and suffers from what is referred to here as “the falling sickness.” Of course, Edgar falls in love with her—as all the other boys at West Point have as well. Lea observes that Edgar’s morbidity suits him well, and he in turn recites to her his poetic meditations on “Lenore.” The story’s title is derived thereof. As the Poe-etic symbols accumulate — a squawking raven, a reference to Lenore — so, too, do the big-name supporting players: Timothy Spall as a toffee-nosed Colonel, Gillian Anderson as the batty wife of the academy’s surgeon. But because he’s Edgar Allan Poe, we know better: This is the guy who has yet to write “The Raven”. He’s a romantic, not a murderer. So, it’s up to the rest of this dreary set to get our minds going, a job that they only barely get to do, in a movie that does not always seem confident in how and whether it aims to please us.
Which makes Christian Bale a necessary counterpoint. He’s got the pain, but not the extremeness, at least not in this role. His wayward detective isn’t committed enough for this to be a job that gets him out of his slump and gives him a chance to redeem himself. This movie isn’t about that. He isn’t the detective as saviour, nor is he really a man in need of saving, not exactly. Bale is somehow too even-keeled to dip firmly into an archetype. He approaches the role the way that Landor appears, at first, to approach this crime: Like a man on the job, maybe not much more. Being a genuine movie star, the kind of actor who’s worth watching even when the movie isn’t, Bale can do that and get away with it.
“The Pale Blue Eye” is heavy, and not always to its advantage. Its glumness, meant to come off as a good-looking take on American Gothic, gets in the way of its juicier, freakier bits. The offence is that it does so in service of a mystery that barely matters. Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography sometimes reproduces a gorgeous kind of grayscale, broken up by flashes of blue water and the blue uniforms of the cadets of the West Point Military Academy, the then-fledgling institution at which much of the story’s action is set. The barren trees and snowy ridges of the Hudson Valley in winter have rarely looked as forbidding as they do in Scott Cooper’s feature, a mystery that’s more about mood than ingenuity. But the chill you feel in your bones may actually enhance the suspense; Cooper clearly understands that mysteries live or die in their atmosphere. Those of us for whom Sherlock Holmes served as a gateway drug into serious literature can testify to this: The Victorians, the cobblestones and the gaslight, all were just as essential as the cases themselves to our fascination, maybe more so.
Overall, this also sets up a challenge for the movie: how to deliver a solution that not only makes sense but also honours the captivating cruelty of the crimes committed. And amazingly, the film’s finale is a genuine hoot — totally unexpected yet expertly sold through the clever deployment of information. Unlike a lot of mysteries that are designed to be unsolvable by an audience (which is a valid approach; remember, Arthur Conan Doyle never gave us all the necessary clues, either), “The Pale Blue Eye” shows us everything we need to figure it all out and still manages to pull the rug out from under us. Even so, what ultimately resonates are the picture’s surprisingly moving central relationship and its vivid setting.