Written & Directed by Scott Cooper
The life and stories of Edgar Allan Poe, one of America’s truly original and great writers, is a rich catalog which films have utilized to great effect in the past. And given our current infatuation with true-crime, murder mystery, and horror, it seems appropriate that more content would be created around one of America’s most accomplished artists. However, it seems that has not really taken hold in Hollywood. So enter Scott Cooper, whose past works like Crazy Heart, Black Mass, and Hostiles have garnered at least some attention from both the Academy and the public at large. Cooper’s vision of Poe is not an adaptation of his celebrated works, but rather an adaption of a novel by Louis Bayard, which takes advantage of the circumstance of Poe’s life, specifically a very short stint Poe had at the United States Military Academy at West Point in the early 19th century. This backdrop and the sense of mood and atmosphere inherent in a Poe tale makes for the perfect scenario for a murder mystery. But does Cooper’s film really hit all the beats and tie all the knots for this fictional tale to work?
After a United States Military Academy cadet on the grounds of West Point turns up hung on a tree, the administration (Simon McBurney, Timothy Spall) contracts the expertise of renown detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) to look into whether the circumstance supports suicide or murder. Landor quickly commissions the help of a loner cadet named Edgar Poe (Harry Melling), whose macabre and analytical mind prove useful to Landor in his investigation. Landor quickly concludes that foul play was involved in the death of the cadet in question, making everyone on campus a suspect, including the son of the doctor (Toby Jones) and his family (Gillian Anderson, Lucy Boynton), and eventually even Poe himself. As the investigation goes deeper and deeper, and with the help of mentor Professor Pepe (Robert Duvall), Landor find something sinister is at play, as more cadets turn up murdered and disemboweled under mysterious circumstances. But will he be able to uncover the true nature of the affair before more loss of life?
As a fan of just about every detail of this movie, from the period, the backdrop, the idea of a murder investigation, etc., this should work as catnip for my film tastes. And largely it does. As the film gets going, and the setup is complete, I was fully on board with the journey on which we were about to embark. The costuming, the set design, the pacing, the introduction of mysterious twists and turns. I was hooked. But then the rest of the movie seems to languish in its setup, losing its brilliant pacing, instead choosing to lumber through the rest of the movie by not adding any additional mood. It quickly, and rather tragically, becomes, to be blunt, a bore. And I think there are several factors that can be pointed toward which account for this loss of momentum in the storytelling by Cooper, but I think first among them are both the performances of an otherwise very accomplished cast, and the story turns themselves, as penned by writer/director Cooper.
Christian Bale in the lead is fine. Perhaps understated in his performance, but otherwise fine if uninspired as Landor. But Bale shrinks alongside Harry Melling, who is perhaps best known as Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films, but delivered a rather brilliant turn in one of the segments of the Coen Brothers most recent film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Melling, and perhaps is the correct approach given the character, gives a much larger performance as the notable Edgar Allan Poe, but it sticks out like a sore thumb next to Bale. Likewise, many of the other performances in the film tend toward the larger, most flashy side of things, most obviously in the form of Gillian Anderson, who feels more caricature than real human. And I think what a shame that is when the scenario and backdrop are so ripe for a truly thrilling and exciting murder mystery. After a full buy-in from me through the first act, the film loses me completely by the time we reach the payoff of the mystery and the “greatest” twist of the film, falling flat in what should be the best, most notable moment of the film.
By squandering any goodwill the film had banked with the audience, it almost makes it feel an ever greater disappointment than one which was simply not good start to finish. And I suppose for that reason my reaction to The Pale Blue Eye is a little more impassioned than most slightly negative reviews I tend to write. Seeing that perhaps there is potential for a far greater, far more thrilling experience than the one we are left with by Cooper, I would be tempted to rate the film quit low, but in reality there is still much to admire about the film, the first act in particular which seems very well considered. For that reason, I can’t patently dismiss the entire film, or even give a recommendation to avoid it altogether. Perhaps there are some who will find the larger performances and the many twists and turns more appropriate and thrilling a construct than I did in the end. Fans of murder-mystery films may be intrigued by the setup and their curiosity pull them to this title in their Netflix menus, and I can’t say I could blame them. However, perhaps entering with lowered expectation of where the film ultimately goes would serve the experience a fair bit better than mine.