THE PALE BLUE EYE: 3 ½ STARS. “handsomely mounted, pulpy murder mystery.”
Adapted from Louis Bayard’s 2003 novel of the same name, “The Pale Blue Eye,” a somber new Christian Bale murder mystery now streaming on Netflix, begins with a grisly murder in a society that favors discretion.
Set at West Point Military Academy in upstate New York, circa 1830, the story kicks off on a chilly day, an atmospheric note that informs the tone of the film. A cadet is found dead, hanging from a tree on the grounds. What appears to be a case of a young man taking his own life, becomes suspicious when it is discovered his heart has been removed post mortem.
Hoping to avoid a public scandal, West Point enlists Augustus Landor (Christian Bale), a local detective still smarting from the loss of his only daughter, to quietly solve the case. Hindered by the academy’s strict code of silence, Landor gets a break when meets an eccentric young cadet at a local tavern. “I am an artist,” he flamboyantly declares, “I have no nation.” The man, Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Melling), is a poet and truth seeker whose ambitions lay in the written word, not the stuffy traditions of the military.
“Poe,” Landor says, “I need you to discretely infiltrate the cadets.”
A fictional story, “The Pale Blue Eye” inserts Poe, credited with inventing the American detective story, into this tale of intrigue. The poet, sans his famous moustache, did attend West Point, and after two years of service, attained the rank of Sergeant Major for Artillery, but that is where any similarity to reality ends.
Poe, as played by Melling, is arguably the film’s most entertaining character, the only one cut loose from the restraint that casts a pall over the proceedings like a shroud. Bale raises his voice a few times, breaking his character’s unshakable, flinty self-possession, but it is Melling, and his ostentatious demeanor that brings the, as he says, “hot thrashing flurry,” to break free of the movie’s gothic shackles.
Writer, director Scott Cooper sprinkles engaging supporting performances throughout. As the wife of the very proper Dr. Marquis (Toby Jones), Gillian Anderson’s low rumbling voice gives her character a malevolent edge, and it’s a treat to see Robert Duvall as occult expert Jean-Pepe, even if his role is under-written.
“The Pale Blue Eye” is a handsomely mounted, pulpy murder mystery, with some fine performances, but its methodical pace and bleak nature clip its wings, and don’t allow it to make like the E.A.P.’s Raven and take flight.