While their era of handing out massive blank checks may be coming to a close, Netflix is still dolling out hefty sums of cash for creatives when they’re not cancelling dozens of beloved shows. Writer/director Scott Cooper, known for his rather specific style of dour melodrama and fully-realized grim settings, has gotten his blank check to adapt the 2003 novel of the same name, a Gothic detective mystery featuring the iconic poet Edgar Allan Poe, the man who would go on to pen The Raven and The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which essentially created the modern detective story. Cooper’s films can tend to be a bigger pill to swallow for many critics, but the writer/director succeeds in crafting an old-fashioned detective story with a fully absorbing atmosphere surrounding it.
Set in a particularly snowy West Point, New York, in the year 1830, The Pale Blue Eye follows retired Constable Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) who is called upon to solve a grisly series of murders after a cadet is found hung by the neck with his heart surgically removed. The investigation brings Landor in company with young cadet and future icon Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling) to help aid in the investigation. This is characteristically bleak work from Cooper, whose most accessible films have been an unsettling Wendigo monster movie and a rather dry depiction of the crimes of gangster/FBI informant Whitey Bulger. Cooper is typically a filmmaker that excels in crafting tangible moods that often works in sync with stark melodrama. Adapting the 2003 novel by Louis Bayard, the writer/director tones down his usual unrelenting grimness for a film that feels far more classical in nature.
He’s still hitting on his similar themes of grief, particularly in how it motivates his characters, but The Pale Blue Eye is more comfortable as a moody, atmospheric detective story than a surefire piece of compelling drama. Cooper and frequent collaborator cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi evoke a persistent chilly aesthetic that looks and feels like an Edgar Allan Poe story come to life. The sluggish pacing prevents the film from having any lasting dramatic impact, however, that sense of dread alongside Cooper’s remarkable sense of time and place — Stefania Cella’s set design is lavish and expressionist without feeling too otherworldly — holds you firmly in the films environments even when the narrative sags.
Cooper enlists a sizable supporting cast including the likes of Toby Jones, Lucy Boynton, Timothy Spall, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Robert Duvall. While we get some notable performances, many actors are short-changed to spouting exposition or playing stock characters. Gillian Anderson is downright kooky as the mentally unstable wife to Jones’ Dr. Marquis, and Lucy Boynton continues to be one of Hollywood’s most egregiously underutilized new stars, who is far more capable than roles such as this. The Pale Blue Eye is, however, most alive when it features the winning odd couple dynamic between Melling and Bale. Harry Melling, who has since morphed from tubby Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films, to a skilled, idiosyncratic character actor, portrays the iconic poet with fragility and heft, also with an youthful energy that juxtaposes the usual portrayals of Poe we typically see. This is perhaps Christian Bale’s most subtle, reserved turn in some years. Bale’s Landor is a character whose layers unfurl as the film progresses and the close-guarded nature of Bale’s performance allows for the central dynamic to evolve throughout the film.
The Pale Blue Eye is a chilly mystery that is largely elevated by the power of its leads and luscious production detail. Christian Bale and Harry Melling make for a memorable duo that fully engage even when the central mystery doesn’t.
(Now Streaming on Netflix)