A historical murder mystery, featuring the father of detective stories, Edgar Allan Poe, in a supporting role, and a title that draws from Poe’s eerily spare short story, ‘The Tell Tale Heart’, is enough of an incentive to watch Scott Cooper’s The Pale Blue Eye. Cooper, who has also written the screenplay, adapts Louis Bayard’s 2003 novel, The Pale Blue Eye, for his third collaboration with Christian Bale after Out of the Furnace and Hostiles.
The film opens in 1830 with Augustus Landor (Bale), a retired detective and “expert in gloveless interrogation”, called to West Point, New York, to the United States Military Academy, to investigate the death and desecration of a cadet’s body. An aside, 150 years later, West Point had another graduate, who after distinguished service at the 110th Special Investigations Unit, is now roaming the United States righting wrongs with his massive fists and lethal head butt.
The Pale Blue Eye
Leroy Fry (Steven Maier) apparently hung himself but his heart was cut out of his body in the morgue. From the marks on Fry’s neck and a fragment of a note clutched in Fry’s hand, Landor figures out that the cadet was murdered. He enlists the help of a bright and imaginative young cadet, Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling), to negotiate the highly regimented world of the military academy.
Another death, disappearance, and mutilation of farm animals point to a satanic cult and there is no lack of suspects. There are the bullies, secret societies, and tubercular young ladies, including the doctor, Marquis’ (Toby Jones) daughter Lea (Lucy Boynton), who apart from a hacking cough also suffers from random seizures.
The final denouement reveals who was responsible for the killings, or does it? Landor, in the tradition of all fictional detectives, is a lonely widower. That he is grappling with a personal mystery, the whereabouts of his daughter Mattie (Hadley Robinson), adds a further layer to his character. He takes what comfort he can from Patsy (Charlotte Gainsbourg) at the local inn.
Poe, unlike the plodding Watson, or mon cher Hastings, has a sharp, intuitive mind and uses all the principles of ratiocination to arrive at the poignant solution. The Pale Blue Eye, despite all the Poe references, (there are even wicked-looking Ravens floating about) does not completely commit to the macabre.
While Masanobu Takayanagi’s frames capture the frozen beauty of the landscape, and Howard Shore’s music is alternatively tenuous and lush, The Pale Blue Eye does not do full justice to its inspiration or source material. What one is left with are competent performances by Bale, Gillian Anderson (as the doctor’s wife), and Robert Duvall (as Jean-Pepe, who points Landor towards satanic rituals). Melling turns in a virtuoso performance as Poe, on whom “morbidity suits better than his uniform,” and offers a compelling reason to spend time with this underwhelming whodunnit. Better to read ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ or any of the other Auguste Dupin stories, or Matthew Pearl’s The Poe Shadow.
The Pale Blue Eye is currently streaming on Netflix