Review: 'The Pale Blue Eye' has Christian Bale in a Vintage Whodunnit

Kurt Loder on

"The Pale Blue Eye" is an atmospheric murder mystery set at West Point, the U.S. military academy, in the snowy winter of 1830. This, you may know, was the period during which Edgar Allan Poe was very briefly a cadet at the school, and the movie, based on a book by Louis Bayard, muses about what might have happened if Poe -- already a budding poet and on his way toward, among other things, pioneering the literary genre of detective fiction -- had been caught up in a real-life homicide investigation. That never happened, of course, but it's an interesting premise for a story; unfortunately, the movie's narrative wanders off into a dark thicket of gorgeous production design, in which the talented director, Scott Cooper, ultimately loses his way.

Christian Bale is an actor who can normally anchor any film, although he's been wasted in some disappointing pictures lately (the clamorous "Amsterdam," the muddled "Thor: Love and Thunder"). Here he's hobbled somewhat by having to play a semi-secondary character, a retired detective named Augustus Landor. (The name is an echo of C. Auguste Dupin, the protagonist of Poe's 1841 short story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue.") Landor, a widower living a lonely life in a country cottage, is called back to the gumshoe game by West Point's Superintendent Thayer (Timothy Spall), who's anxious to tamp down a scandal triggered by a cadet named Fry, who has hanged himself from a tree on the banks of the Hudson River and, as if that weren't shameful enough, somehow managed to have his heart cut out of his body -- while it was still lying in the morgue -- by persons unknown. Thayer wants those persons found, and he thinks Landor is the man for the job.

To assist him in this mission. Landor recruits a student insider, Poe (played with keen wit by Harry Melling, looking nothing like the chubby Dudley Dursley he portrayed in the "Harry Potter" films). Poe is clearly a born sleuth: the first thing he tells Landor is, "The man you're looking for is a poet."

Landor extracts useful clues from a diary filled with ciphers (codebreaking was another of the real Poe's interests). But he and his young associate can't crack the case in time to prevent a second murder. They do, however, show us around some stark, snow-blanketed Hudson Valley acreage, beautifully photographed by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, and lead us off on a side trip to visit Landor's academic friend Jean Pepe (an unrecognizable Robert Duvall), who seasons the story with unexpected portents of devil-worship. This in turn leads us to the sinister Marquis family, in which formidable mom Gillian Anderson and her daughter Lucy Boynton are up to more unsavory things than anyone might imagine (although spooky talk of a vintage witchfinder lurking in the family tree should be a tipoff).


This is certainly rich, pulpy material, but director Cooper gets bogged down in low-impact complications (and in the low-light darkness in which most of the interior scenes play out). And while Melling's winning enthusiasm effectively motors the story whenever he's around (his name really needn't be mentioned in connection with that Potter fellow anymore), the movie still leaks energy in the second half as it prepares to make a narrative left turn that may leave some viewers feeling grumpy and ill-served. This is too bad, because for most of its length, "The Pale Blue Eye" is a great-looking film, filled with crackling fireplaces and cozy period bric-a-brac. And Cooper succumbs only once to making a campy Poe reference (a passing closeup of a squawking raven on a bough). But in expanding the narrative to accommodate some backstory involving Landor's ill-fated daughter (Hadley Robinson), the movie goes on too long, and it ends on a note so muted you wonder what became of all the fun buildup that preceded it. This is the real mystery.


Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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