The latest crime drama from writer/director Scott Cooper, The Pale Blue Eye, is now streaming, but should you give it a watch?
Talk to any comic book enthusiast, and they will tell you that some of the most fun plot ideas have come from the “What if …” writing style.
What if Superman was born in another country? What if the X-Men existed in the Elizabethan Era? What if Captain America ran for President?
But why should comic books & superheroes have all the fun?
Hollywood has been making larger-than-life biopics “loosely” based on real people & true stories for decades, but every now and then, they decide just to rip off the “loosely” and go for the crossover tales we didn’t even know we wanted.
What if Socrates, Beethoven, & Joan of Arc helped a couple of teenagers with their history report? What if Nikola Tesla created a machine for a magicians’ disappearing act? What if Abraham Lincoln saved the world from Vampires?
What if a young Edgar Allan Poe helped a detective solve a murder during his time as a West Point cadet?
That last idea is the subject of Louis Bayard’s historical fiction novel, The Pale Blue Eye, which caught the attention of veteran writer/director Scott Cooper (Hostiles, Out of the Furnace, Crazy Heart), who adapted this Netflix Original after drafting many versions of the screenplay over the years.
Set on the grounds of the West Point Military Academy on the western bank of the Hudson River in New York, the film centers around local detective Augustus Landor, played by frequent Cooper collaborator Christian Bale, who is brought in to investigate the mysterious death of one of the Academy’s cadets. When it becomes clear that Landor won’t be able to crack the case alone, he enlists the help of an eager yet eccentric cadet named Edgar Allan Poe (played by Harry Potter & The Ballad of Buster Scruggs star Harry Melling).
Though we enter the world through the eyes of Bale’s Landor, Cooper describes the film as an “Edgar Allan Poe Origin Story” that has “the themes that ultimately influence (the) young unformed writer to become the writer he became.”
Much like the 2012 Poe-centric film The Raven, The Pale Blue Eye is filled with references to Poe’s literary work and details of his personal life. Melling & Cooper’s depiction of Poe displays a scrawny intellectual who has been battered & bullied by his peers most of his life; A tortured alcoholic with a poet’s soul that seeks the level of attention & admiration his late mother bestowed upon him during his childhood.
In an interview with Collider, Melling described his approach to playing Poe within his relationship to Bale’s Landor:
“A thing that I kept coming back to was the idea that Landor offers him something that he needs, this anchor, this sense of place, this sense of belonging. And I also knew that I had to give Landor enough reasons to fall in love with Poe. Yes, you meet him, he could be this very foolish, very strange creature, but I had to give him enough reasons to want to invest in this person.”
Those reasons to invest in Poe & Melling’s performance are why this film works on any level.
His look, his demeanor, & his accent draw you in at every turn. The more he is in the center of the film, the more the film benefits from his presence. Melling continues his impressive accent as a strong character actor building on his previous roles in The Queen’s Gambit, The Tragedy of MacBeth, & The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
While Melling is incredibly strong, the film itself is very average. The most compelling pieces of the story are hidden until the final 20 minutes, which saves the movie from being borderline lackluster.
The cinematography by Cooper’s long-time Director of Photography, Masanobu Takayanagi, is right beside Melling as the backbone of the movie. The cold, gray tones & dense fog offsetting the more vibrant blue uniforms strikes the proper tone for such an unsettling tale. The look and feel remind me of comparable works such as Gareth Evans’s Netflix Original Apostle & Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow.
As for our lead of sorts, Christian Bale is solid as always; however, he is played so dour & subtle as not to raise attention to himself that he fades into the background in many instances. His arc pays off in that final act, but it feels a tad late for the film to be as effective as it wants to be.
Given the film had a limited release in theaters and a premiere date set in late Q4, I think Netflix believed they could have a sleeper awards nominee on their hands. However, I don’t think this film has enough goods to warrant any nominations this year. Melling is very good, but I think it will go overlooked if the movie doesn’t make enough noise for the voting bodies to notice.
Overall, if you are a big fan of Cooper’s style or an over-the-top Edgar Allan Poe enthusiast, you may get more mileage out of this film than most; But, to me, the film will largely be remembered for Melling’s standout performance and far less for the story within.
Watch The Pale Blue Eye if you like:
- Out of the Furnace
- Black Mass
- Sleepy Hollow
- The Wonder
MVP of The Pale Blue Eye
Henry Melling as Edgar Allan Poe.
This was perfect casting. Melling’s striking facial features already draw you in, but then you add the wit, intellect, & somber tone of Poe and you have a recipe for success in a murder mystery such as this.
PLAY, PAUSE, OR STOP?
Given the cast and use of Poe as a character in a murder mystery, this film should have been much stronger than it was. Melling’s performance and strong ending save a very slow & tedious early going.