The Film Review: Netflix’s “The Pale Blue Eye“
The visuals are intense, captivating, and thick, right from the beginning, and we know we are in for one dark, yet deliciously devious tale, as we watch a figure crouched down on the water’s edge. It’s not clear what he is doing, but the clammer that is heard in the distance draws him up and out of himself. It is as foreboding a detail as one needs for Scott Cooper’s “The Pale Blue Eye” to grab our attention and draw us into its noose without a blink. We are intrigued, easily and swiftly, by the cold white crispness of the landscape and the darkness of what the snow is trying to cover up and muffle. Especially from those who seek to understand the dank, dark dirtiness that might be brooding underneath. Beautifully photographed by Masanobu Takayanagi (“Swan Song”), the film works its subtle magic on us, impressively pulling us into its gothic intensity, and with Christian Bale leading the way, “The Pale Blue Eye” barely gives us a moment, nor a reason, to look away.
The film is a fascinating blend of ominous foreshadowing and supernatural misgivings, courtesy of Scott’s eventive and exacting screenplay, adapted from the novel by Louis Bayard. It’s a well-executed gothic commotion that pulls the retired detective, Augustus Landor, played impressively, although sometimes overly dramatic, by Bale (“Vice“; “The Fighter“) who is delivered unwillingly into a mysterious murder and subsequent mutilation at the famous West Point military academy. He doesn’t seem intrigued or all that interested in coming in for the assignment, but the case is a complex one, and they seem to believe he is the one who can solve it. Quietly. And without causing unneeded alarm.
It seems that on a calm October evening in 1830, the body of a young cadet was found swinging from a rope just off the parade grounds. It’s an apparent suicide, which is alarming, but the true horror comes the next morning, when it is discovered that someone has removed the heart of the dead cadet, while it lay in waiting. Landor is enlisted by the military academy, particularly the superintendent, played deliciously by Timothy Spall (“Mr. Turner“), and a tightly wound Captain Hitchcock, beautifully played by Simon McBurney (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy“), with a certain Jean Pepe, portrayed by the always impressive Robert Duvall (“The Apostle“), on the side filling in the blanks. And together, they are pressuring him to investigate the mystery ever so diligently and professionally. As he seems to know his way around.
And he does, even while breaking a few rules here and there, like drinking and spending time with the lovely Patsy, played touchingly by Charlotte Gainsbourg (“Melancholia“) who acts as a companion, but also another who fills in the spaces required. Bale’s Landor also engages with one very particularly odd cadet, a young unusually poetic gentleman by the name of E. A. Poe, who is more intrigued by the macabre than maybe any cadet should. But this personage, played magnificently by Harry Melling (“The Tragedy of Macbeth“; West End’s Hand To God), is none other than the young soon-to-be writer Edgar Allan Poe, and here’s where this clever piece gets fascinatingly disruptive and unabashingly creative. In a grand and layered kind of way.
Poe is an intriguing force, but not the most popular with the other cadets, most notably portrayed by Harry Lawtey, Fred Hechinger. Joey Brooks, Steven Maier, Brennan Keel Cook, Jack Irv, Matt Helm, Charlie Tahan, and Gideon Glick (Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway). Poe is odd and obviously different from the others, yet, the qualities of the sensitive and erudite Poe edge the case forward with a subtle darkness that seems to envelope the whole. In many ways I wish I was more well acquainted with the famous writer, so I would be able to connect all the drops of blood from his most iconic and dark shorts stories, like “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” but most go over my head. There is the obvious black Raven, flapping its black wings on a nearby tree, dark and playfully giving us that special flavor, but all the other references, and I’m assuming there are, were lost on me. I’m sure that connective tissue would add some more fun detective work to the viewing, fleshing out the metaphores, but it also didn’t take away anything from the framework being one who is not in the know.
The central story digs itself in quickly and sharply, as Landor tries to unravel the rope. The clues seem to fall almost too easily at his feet, but the cast of characters don’t offer much in the realm of suspects. Landor ends up focusing his interactions around the Marquis family, fronted by the man who did the autosy on the hanging cadet, a Dr. Daniel Marquis, portrayed by the compelling Toby Jones (“Infamous“). But it’s his wife, Mrs. Julia Marquis, played by Gillian Anderson (“Sex Education“) who steals almost every scene she is in with her delivery and design. No surprise there. Their son, cadet Artemus, played by the enticing Harry Lawtey (“You & Me“), and their lovely daughter Lea Marquis, beautifully portrayed by Lucy Boynton (“Sing Street“) fill out the family frame and become the emotional focus for both Landon and Poe respectively. The family fascinates, drawing us deep into their dynamics at the dining table and around their fireplace, with music and an undercurrent of something untouchable, that doesn’t quite give us a sense of ease.
Landor and Poe rummage together quite the emotionally touching bond along the way, finding connection and compassion as they try to unwrap the clues and theories that float out before them. It turns out the the mystery is less important than the engagements made, and within Cooper’s compelling narrative and atmospheric creation, their alignment feels fully sufficient and compelling. Bale is a wonderfully intense detective, unarming us with his brooding detatched persona. He digs into the part unleashing an edge that is sharp and sad all at the same time. His cleverness is deceiving, much like his literate nature, but it becomes increasingly clear he is not the star of this show, whether he realizes it or not.
Melling is the center, where all things evolve and are contained. He meticulously unveils a magnificent Poe, easily the most captivating and complex creature in this eerily dark and damp cinematic world. He’s emotionally timid and frail, but eager and daring in a way that draws us in, just like he is drawn to Landor. He needs Landor in a complex and dynamic way, like a forgotten child eager for validation and alignment. And because of Melling’s entrancingly egotistical, quiet, yet damaged son-creation, “The Pale Blue Eye” captivates, without a doubt. Whether we have a prior knowledge of Poe or not. The film deepens its sadness and darkness at every turn around the snow-covered ice house, finding weight and intrigue in Landor’s weariness, and a compellingness in Melling’s powerfully adept performance. Dig in, and enjoy the gothic darkness of “The Pale Blue Eye.” You won’t want to look away.
“The Pale Blue Eye” is now streaming on Netflix.