Directed by Scott Cooper (Hostiles) — Screenplay by Scott Cooper.
Netflix’s first major film release of 2023 is Scott Cooper’s (very late entry into the 2022 movie year) The Pale Blue Eye. The film, which is based on a historical fiction novel of the same name from author Louis Bayard, features an incredibly well-known author, Edgar Allan Poe, as a character that is integral to the narrative, and it should go without saying that the film does not come close to becoming even a little bit as notable as the author the creatives have built a fictional mystery around. That would be a tough ask, to be honest. Still, though, this is a pretty decent crime thriller, even if it won’t end up on many best of 2022 lists.
The film follows a retired detective named Augustus Landor (played by Christian Bale) as he is hired to investigate the death of a cadet. The cadet has been found hanged, but his heart has also been removed. Landor is quick to find markings that suggest that it wasn’t a suicide, and, in an effort to learn more about the dead cadet, Landor enlists the help of Edgar Allan Poe (played by Harry Melling), also a cadet, who has a lot of ideas about what kind of person must have done this.
Right from the get-go, The Pale Blue Eye captures the right mood and atmosphere of a cold gothic costume drama. The limited interior lighting inside at night is appropriately dark, and the exterior looks and feels appropriately cold. The gradual development of the story into the more occult makes for a good match for the surroundings, the color scheme, and the characters. Christian Bale is perfectly cast as the outside presence elected to lead the investigation, and his is a well-written complex character, who is a little bit of a smart-ass, but also quite clearly a step ahead at most times. No one will be surprised to learn that Christian Bale absolutely nails the part. Bale fits this like a glove. With the gradual introduction to the occult also comes an interest in dreams and ghosts, which makes the film even more fascinating as it goes along.
As the film develops, we also meet the most interesting character in the film. Edgar Allan Poe is played by Harry Melling (Harry Potter-films; The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), and he delivers a lively performance. In a film so mannered and serious, Melling’s Poe sticks out like a sore thumb. He comes across as entertaining to Bale’s character, and it is a very engaged and theatrical version of the iconic author. I should also add that Melling really looks the part, with costuming, hairstyling, and make-up also helping to make him quite believable as the character. Melling, like Bale, is a standout among a really great cast that also includes notable performances from Gillian Anderson, Lucy Boynton, Timothy Spall, Robert Duvall, and Toby Jones.
As a murder mystery film, you could argue that it is only as good as the unveiling and resolution of the mystery. With regard to this, I should say that the film is quite slow. It feels deliberately paced for the purpose of adding to the atmosphere and mood, but some people will find it to be patience-testing. As for the revelation, I am of two minds. I think the answer to the initial pressing mystery is rather obvious, and I was surprised the film took so long before pointing the finger in that very specific direction. However, towards the end — through an information dump and a number of flashbacks — an asterisk is added to the mystery that changes things in surprising and interesting ways. While I have established that I like both Melling and Bale in the film, I’m not sure the film needed to be both a Poe origin story — which it really feels like — and a murder mystery. The thing is, I’m not sure the film ultimately achieves the bond between the characters that a teary-eyed scene toward the end of the film wanted to bring forth.
Scott Cooper’s The Pale Blue Eye is an atmospheric period crime thriller that is well acted, with well-tuned performances from Christian Bale and Harry Melling, but its slow pace will be a stumbling block for some, the mystery is somewhat predictable, and the Holmes-Watson-esque connection between the main characters is not as well-realized as it ought to be, which makes their final scene together somewhat ineffective emotionally (even though the plot developments revealed in this scene are really engrossing). Still, those up for a snowy and deliberately paced gothic murder mystery should check this one out, because there are some really strong elements to be found here.
6.5 out of 10
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.