The Pale Blue Eye
In the depths of Winter, 1830, renowned detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) is removed from his self-destructive mourning over the death of his wife and departure of his daughter when asked to investigate a strange death at the United States Military Academy in West Point. Amid signs of occult involvement in what rapidly turns out to be murder, Landor is approached by a strange loquacious cadet, Edgar Allen Poe (Henry Melling), who offers his assistance in determining who is the perpetrator.
The Pale Blue Eye is a moody introduction to 2023 in film, a dark, positively gothic, murder mystery that takes in themes of military discipline eroding free will, bloody revenge and flat-out Satanism. It’s certainly not for those looking for an easy beginning to the year’s movies. But if you can stand it you’ll find a pretty good production, one that marries a grim detective story with a really great depiction of a haunting time and place.
The film tries to do a few different things, and mostly succeeds. It’s a whodunnit, one that is engaging without being confusing, and entertaining without being too simplistic. Bale’s Landor has a killer to find and plenty of intriguing clues to follow, and while it is no Glass Onion the culmination of the mystery still provides satisfaction for the road followed and the plot-points hit on. It’s a period piece, almost a drama-of-manners, where the overly-polite mores of society at the time form a very important backdrop, especially when class divides and savage violence interrupts them at various points. It’s a psychological horror in many ways, where discussions on the nature of free will quickly morph into a moral discussion of the same, with everything dark that can come from such things. But most importantly it is an unlikely buddy-cop movie, with the weary Landor matched by the singular character of Melling’s Poe, a mentor/student relationship that makes The Pale Blue Eye go up a level all on its own.
Melling on his own is a fascinating presence. We’re long past Dudley Dursley now: after his fascinating turn in The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs this is a real landmark performance from Melling, giving us a Poe whose choice of language – always overly elaborate, but in a strangely charismatic, performative, kind of way – and manner of delivering it really marks him out. He’s tasked with delivering what is essentially an origin story for Poe, and does it really well, making this naively romantic young man who is so eager to please others so compelling. His Poe could easily just be a creepy guy with an obsession for the macabre, but Melling pitches it so perfectly that he is instead someone you actually like, and want to spend more time with, disturbed in fundamental ways but still a decent person. In fact it is enough to say that Melling largely steals the show from the more accomplished Bale, whose Landor is fine but nothing we haven’t seen from the man before in terms of performance. Every time the Poe character is on the screen it’s impossible to take your eyes off of Melling, so magnetic is the way that he aims to portray this tortured poet.
A not inconsiderable supporting cast – Toby Jones, Gillian Anderson, Timothy Spall – are here too, but honestly not up to all that much, Anderson especially. They all pale next to Bale and Melling, and the relationship of their characters, which rapidly proceeds from a surprising friendship, to a form of enmity, to a father/son substitution for both and onto something else entirely. Director/writer Scott Cooper deftly weaves this relationship in and around the reality of the murder case, and all of the darkness that comes with it, and in that regard The Pale Blue Eye can be deemed a huge success. That said, there is one key flaw, which is the general structure of the finale: The Pale Blue Eye delivers an emotionally satisfying conclusion and then keeps going for another 20-25 minutes or so, and while that time is marked by one more opportunity for Melling to give us this flowery, dramatic Poe, it also feels like the content is too much of a good thing, a whodunnit after the whodunnit, in service of a somewhat flat twist, that the story honestly didn’t need.
If there was ever a film to really get across the idea of a cold environment, then it is The Pale Blue Eye. Half of the production takes place in black darkness, lit only by the occasional candle: daytime scenes are marked by snow, visible breath and shivering characters barely getting by. So strong is the sense of cold, destitution and misery that it really is an active part of the story, giving every scene a sense of impending doom, every character an additional bit of isolation, which I suppose is just about perfect when Edgar Allen Poe is a character and, yes, there are a few ravens here and there. The nearest thing I could compare it all too would be The Revenant, which I suppose is similar in a lot of ways. And I mean this all in a good way, with The Pale Blue Eye and its cinematography perfectly judging what needs to be portrayed for this story.
The Pale Blue Eye is a great way to start the year. I was expecting a drab Holmes/Watson-style tale, the kind of thing where, with a cast this good, its streaming status probably meant it wasn’t really all that great. But instead I got both a really smart detective plot that isn’t afraid to push the envelope in its dark themes (without being overly-edgy) and is matched with two strong central performances. It is with Melling though that I suspect The Pale Blue Eye will be best remembered: I have a feeling we might be seeing a lot more of this guy going forward, if the entrancing nature of this showing is anything to go on. Not that he was some nobody before this, but there’s an acting skill behind that face that I hadn’t realised. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netfix).