“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.” – Edgar Allen Poe, The Raven.
No American writer has quite captured the public imagination as much as the enigmatic Poe. Known as the father of the modern murder mystery, his fiction took us into crumbling manors, frightened us with the horrors of madness, and then some. The mystery surrounding his death added an additional layer to the horror, keeping fans wondering for centuries. Now in director Scott Cooper’s latest film, we’re taken back in time to Poe’s brief time at West Point.
Adapted from Louis Bayard’s novel of the same name, THE PALE BLUE EYE captures the Gothic murder mystery as we’ve all known it. A murder has taken place at the isolated military academy. Veteran detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) is invited to investigate and soon makes the acquaintance of a young Poe (Harry Melling) who, not shortly after, is more than willing to help the detective with his investigation. But, as the young would-be poet will discover, not everything is as it seems and, if he’s not too careful, his life may end up forfeit.
‘No dirge will I upraise’
THE PALE BLUE EYE reunites Cooper and Bale for their third film, and they are a working match made in heaven. Bale encapsulates the world-weariness of Detective Landor. Maneuvering around West Point, the audience sees the barely simmering resentment he holds towards the institution. It also explains the detective’s draw towards the young Poe, who embodies everything that the military institution aims to crush out.
As Poe, it’s clear Melling is having a blast. He captures the awkward eccentricities of the young writer well, though his performance does border on parody at times. Part of this is in his execution of Poe’s accent, which sounds like it’s aiming for a Richmond accent. Because of how the accent sounds, it can easily sound put upon and over-the-top if not careful. Melling does slip in and out of it throughout the film and clamps down on its usage when he reins it back in. However, the performance itself and his easy interactions with Bale’s Landor onscreen make him easily a fave to watch in THE PALE BLUE EYE.
Full of veteran actors, the supporting cast delivers strong performances, even if the writing occasionally underserves them. Lucy Boynton’s Lea is both tragic and in control of her destiny, with the harbinger of death looming over her shoulder. She delivers another performance that she can add to her folder of why she should be considered for more leading role material. Seriously, snatch her up, casting agents!
The Gothic aesthetic of THE PALE BLUE EYE
Cooper has always done well in crafting the appropriate atmosphere and aesthetic for his productions. THE PALE BLUE EYE is no exception. With the film being a passion project for the director, the attention to detail doesn’t go unnoticed. Shooting during a western Pennsylvanian winter paid off, utilizing the natural environment to create that necessary Gothic feel. With the natural isolation of winter comes madness, and it is here we can see that madness flourish as the characters navigate their internal conditions alongside the frost-ridden winter.
Director of Photography Masanobu Takayanagi, Production Designer Stefania Cella, Costume Designer Kasia Walicka Maimone, and Hair and Makeup Stylist Autumn Butler comprise the core of the below-the-line team. The partnership between Takayanagi and Cooper is longstanding, and you can tell going in that they were able to successfully collaborate to achieve the desired aesthetic. Shooting on location paid off for Cella in tackling realistic period production design. This attention to detail is also apparent in the costume design work of Maimone and in Butler’s approach to hair and makeup.
What ultimately sours the overall success of THE PALE BLUE EYE is the story, which can’t be entirely blamed on Cooper. It is a slowburn that then feels a bit rushed towards the end in the third act, with a lack of breadcrumbs to lead us from Point A to Point B. While I’m not familiar with the original story Baynard, it stands to reason the big reveal at the end is attributed to him and it is the reveal towards the end that makes things wibbly. For the sake of spoilers, I won’t reveal further questions. It does stand to reason that the film does open itself up to a rewatch, but frustratingly so.
Cooper is never one to play it safe, and we appreciate him for that. It’s clear how much he respects the story and the aesthetic of Louis Baynard’s novel. It radiates off the screen. While it drags slightly and features an expedited third act, THE PALE BLUE EYE is a proper Gothic murder mystery that pays respectful homage to Edgar Allen Poe. Featuring a fine performance from Bale and an admirable effort from Melling as Poe, this is a film I’d point murder mystery fans and lovers of the Gothic aesthetic to. Make it a game to guess how many Poe literary references you can find while watching.
THE PALE BLUE EYE will be released in select theaters on December 23, 2022. It will then be dropped on Netflix on January 6, 2023.
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