The Pale Blue Eye basically coasts on thriller moodiness. The abundance of procedurals has made the genre a bit more rote, but this gets bonus points for the 1800 setting and throwing in real-life historical figures. The chilly setting adds a lot of ambiance, it also looks great, has an earnest lead performance, and the creepy moments work. The grand mystery also hinges upon more than a few coincidences which is kind of eye rolling. But if one is looking for a sustained bit of 1800s era mystery, even if it’s a bit too chatty, this is decent.
In 1830 in New York at West Point Military Academy, a cadet is found hanged and brought in to investigate is retired detective Landor (Christian Bale). Even more disturbing, the body was mutilated, and the heart removed. Interviewing cadets for clues, Landor strikes ups an unlikely allyship with a bullied cadet and aspiring poet, Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling). They also begin to question the Academy doctor, Daniel (Toby Jones), and his family, Cadet Artemus (Harry Lawtey), daughter Lea (Lucy Boynton) and the doctor’s wife, Julia (Gillian Anderson). As another body is discovered, Landor and Poe suspect the killings are tied into ritualistic Satanism, and they must stop the killer before more people end up dead.
Bale is the biggest star here and his performance is heavy on grizzled detective noir cliches. The retired detective is brought back for one final case although he’d much rather be boozing than investigating due to a tragic backstory. Although by giving Bale a wacky beard and setting the whole thing in the 1830s makes it feel slightly different. The winter setting makes the film feel distinctly creepy, and the chilly vibe permeates the entire film with striking images of finding bodies in the snowy wilderness. There are a lot of distinctive wide shots as the visuals sustain the freaky mood. And it needs to coast by on mood because the plot is kind of haphazardly patched together.
There are more than a few coincidences as a few things had to happen independently of each other for the plot to happen. A good detective story can get away with some contrivances, but this is slowly paced and chatty so the plot cracks show more. Also, the movie is weirdly structured where there’s a big climatic moment and then it keeps going on for another 20 minutes afterwards. Although there are some detective accusing moments in the climax which is necessary in an investigation flick. The movie didn’t exactly need two endings but at least both are interesting.
Bale gets to growl or whisper bitterly most of the time which he’s always pretty good at. His tempo becomes a bit more heated in critical moments, like when he’s talking to the heads of West Point Academy and tears into them for winding their cadets so tightly. It’s a random divergence but the reason for Landor’s bitterness makes sense by the end. The other major character is Melling’s Edgar Allan Poe as the story delves into the reasoning and backstory for a lot of the obsessions and recurring themes in his poetry. Is there any real point in taking a historical figure and putting them into a mystery thriller? Not really but it makes the character distinct. Although as Poe is a noted literary figure it kind of saps the tension out of a scene where Poe is put in mortal peril since we all know he’s not going to die because he must grow up to write The Raven and Tell-Tale Heart. Melling’s Poe is an odd duck at the military academy, he doesn’t fit in with anyone and Melling plays him as a strange guy who timidly connects with other people.
Poe is romantically pursuing Lea and he says lots of very intense things about love, death and his mother. Normally, most women would be turned off, but Lea seems to dig it. She suffers from a falling and shaking disease, probably seizures but nobody in 1830 could diagnose it. This had made her disconnected from everyone else, but the two oddballs find each other. But the best stuff with Lea is near the end as Boynton gets to show off some surprising sides to the girl. Jones as the father and doctor keeps things formal but has some emotional outbursts, and Lawtey as the son also gets more interesting as the movie goes on. As the wife, Anderson’s Julia is a twitchy weirdo in a family of twitchy weirdos and sort of sets off alarm bells for being extremely creepy from her first scene. She gets in some loud freak outs to establish that she’s not to be trusted, as Anderson shows this woman is straining under some external pressure.
The gothic mystery investigation genre can be a bit worn out by now, but the pervasive unsettling feeling of The Pale Blue Eye gives it enough of a kick to be watchable. Also, the finale twists may be nonsensical from a plot perspective but are emotionally devastating. There are better murder mysteries out there, but this accomplishes the job of being coldly freaky.
The Pale Blue Eye
Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale, Harry Melling, Gillian Anderson, Lucy Boynton and Robert Duvall