The Pale Blue Eye is a whodunnit set in a military academy some 200 years ago. But it also features Edgar Allan Poe as a lead character, so as well as being a murder-mystery, the film is also something of an origin story for the legendary horror writer.
Based on the book of the same name by Louis Bayard, The Pale Blue Eye combines multiple genres. The whodunnit aspect is how the film is being sold, but there’s also a spot of romance, lots of drama, and some genuine horror.
But the soul of the story is a father-son relationship, though the characters in question aren’t related by blood. One is a brilliant but obsessive detective. The other an army cadet whom he takes under his wing.
Their relationship is at the heart of The Pale Blue Eye, and goes some way to explaining how said cadet became godfather of the modern detective story.
What is The Pale Blue Eye about?
The year is 1830 and the location is West Point Military Academy, where in the early hours of a cold winter morning, a cadet is found hanging from a tree.
Pressure from Washington – where politicians are trying to shut the Academy down – means the powers that be need to find the culprit, but also keep their investigation quiet.
And so they call upon a local former detective to solve the crime, little realizing their new hire has deep-rooted problems of his own.
Christian Bale intense as ever as Landor
The detective in question is Augustus Landor, played with typical intensity by Christian Bale. A legend amongst New York City constables, Landor is an expert in crowd control, code-breaking, and most ominously, “bloodless interrogation.”
Indeed, the film does lots of telling rather than showing in these early scenes, as we learn that Landor is a godless widower with a drink problem. And that his daughter has recently run away.
Landor accepts the job and attends a sort-of autopsy, where he learns that the heart was carved from the young cadet’s body. Information that sends him straight to the nearest bar.
Introducing Edgar Allan Poe
Not to drink however, but to continue his investigation. While carrying out his enquiries, Landor meets a young cadet who claims, “The man you are looking for is a poet.” And that cadet is Edgar Allan Poe.
Harry Melling – hitherto best know as Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films – is the spitting image of young Poe in the low lights of the drinking establishment. And he’s clearly having a blast playing the author, delivering his lines with drama, humor and flair.
Quickly identifying his intelligence, his insight into the human psyche, and his ability to bypass the code of silence, Landor offers Poe a job. For no pay, he’s to assist his investigation, and while at the same time keeping his mouth shut. Poe jumps at the chance, and so the game is afoot.
The bodies start to pile
What starts as a murder investigation turns into a double homicide when another cadet is found dead. From hanging. With their heart also removed.
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As the bodies start to pile up – and with livestock as well as people becoming victims – it looks like our odd couple are on the trail of what we now know to be a serial killer.
It’s fun watching them work together, Landor the po-faced detective haunted by ghosts from his past. Poe the romantic who looks down on his superiors as well as his fellow cadets.
The search leads them to a strange family who live nearby, while they also start to suspect that witchcraft and black magic might be playing some role in the murders.
Solving the macabre crimes
An intriguing investigation gives way to a pretty predictable and pedestrian denouement, though that then turns into something much more interesting. If a little far-fetched.
Director Scott Cooper – whose previous credits include Crazy Heart, Hostiles, and Out of the Furnace – adapts the material, and fills the film with humor, in spite of the serious subject matter. While he also includes multiple Poe Easter Eggs for fans of the macabre.
It also looks ravishing, with cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi contrasting lush woody interiors with the cold, stark and unforgiving exteriors that truly make it feel like death is in the air.
The Verdict: Is The Pale Blue Eye good?
Christian Bale is good in The Pale Blue Eye, as are supporting players like Gillian Anderson, Timothy Spall, Lucy Boynton, and Robert Duvall, but Harry Melling steals the show as Poe.
Through his acting – and Cooper’s writing – you truly get a sense of who the writer is, and who he might become. So while the whodunnit aspect of the movie is entertaining, it’s the origin story you’ll remember.
The Pale Blue Eye score: 3/5
The Pale Blue Eye is a decent murder-mystery with bags of atmosphere and a spellbinding performance from Harry Melling as Edgar Allan Poe.
The Pale Blue Eye is currently screening in select US cinemas, while it hits Netflix on January 6.