Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale, Harry Melling, Gillian Anderson, Lucy Boynton, Robert Duvall, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Toby Jones, Harry Lawtey, Simon McBurney, Timothy Spall
Run Time: 128 mins
The Pale Blue Eye is the latest by director Scott Cooper, who has proven reliable in a variety of genres, crafting rich, thoughtful films mostly shared by a theme of revenge. The film is an adaptation of the 2003 novel of the same name which sees a young Edgar Allen Poe as a cadet.
Cooper reunites with his Out of the Furnace and Hostiles lead Christian Bale, who plays Augustus Landor. Landor is a retired detective who likes his drink and is asked to investigate the murder of a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. The cadet has been hanged and his heart cut out, not too dissimilar from Poe’s The Telltale Heart. During Landor’s investigation, he befriends Poe (Harry Melling), who proves a dab hand at solving puzzles and mysteries. Several more grisly murders suggest the work of a serial killer.
The Pale Blue Eye has some fine moments but it could have been so much more. At least for the film’s first hour, the mystery is reasonably interesting, although never gripping. Visually, it’s rich in atmosphere, evoking a chilling feeling from the snowy and frostbitten landscapes captured. Despite a handful of somewhat energetic set-pieces, the second half loses its way. A final act twist reframes the preceding events in a new light, although the execution lacks pathos.
Unfortunately, this is Cooper’s weakest film. The mystery is not particularly involving and the film feels sluggish at times. Even on a second watch, armed with the knowledge of the final twist, the film is just not that interesting. This is especially surprising as Cooper’s most recent (and underrated) film, Antlers, proved he could flourish in the horror genre. With The Pale Blue Eye naturally containing horror elements from its subject matter, there’s no real flair or bite to any of the brutal murders or discoveries the characters make in their investigations.
Still, Bale makes for a reliable lead, injecting much-needed intensity but his character isn’t given all that much development and his accent wanders occasionally too. Melling is terrific as Poe, offering oodles of range and charisma, and this film hopefully proves to be the career propulsion he deserves.
Cooper has assembled a buffet of thespian British actors playing Americans, such as Toby Jones, Timothy Spall and Simon McBurney who are all up to the challenge. Robert Duvall also features briefly and commands the screen in his two scenes. Surprisingly, Gillian Anderson plays a rather important role and is terrible with a high-pitched accent with a mouselike demeanour.
Cooper reunites with cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, who shot Out of the Furnace, Black Mass and Hostiles. Although not quite as clinical as some of his other work, the film is shot beautifully and Takayanagi takes advantage of the cold, desolate setting and relishes the use of shadows. The score by Howard Shore is serviceable but could have been so much more.
Ultimately, The Pale Blue Eye isn’t the slam dunk it should have been, considering the host of talent involved. It needed more energy and a rethink as to how the story could have been gripping. Despite its numerous flaws, this is still a handsome film with some strong visuals and performances.