Atmosphere goes a long way in The Pale Blue Eye, a 19th-century serial-killer thriller about a murder investigation at West Point.
Working with accomplished cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, writer/director Scott Cooper (Antlers) drenches his action in icy blues, flickering yellow candlelight, and frosty gray mist that radiates a malevolent chill. That frigid air is made all the more portentous by Howard Shore’s ominous orchestral score and a soundscape of snow crunching beneath boots, wind whistling through trees, and water dripping from sodden wood. A Hudson Valley, New York period piece with a distinctly Sleepy Hollow-ish vibe, it’s a film that, on an aesthetic level, casts an eerie spell.
Shame about its story, though.
An adaptation of Louis Bayard’s 2006 novel of the same name, The Pale Blue Eye is the third collaboration—following Out of the Furnace and Hostiles—between Cooper and Christian Bale. (The film hits theaters Dec. 23 and streams on Netflix starting Jan. 6.)
Bale assumes the role of Augustus Landor, a former detective who, in the aftermath of his wife’s death, as well as the subsequent disappearance of his beloved daughter, now lives in solitude in his remote cabin. His isolation is interrupted by the arrival of an officer from nearby West Point, whose commander (Timothy Spall) requires his sleuthing skills for a most unnerving case.
A cadet has apparently hung himself at the academy, which alone is a potential stain on the institution’s reputation—and, as Spall’s bigwig confesses, might call into question whether students are being pushed too hard and far by their superiors. Worse, however, is that someone has posthumously cut out and taken the young man’s heart, for reasons no one can fathom.
Landor is thus confronted by a ghastly mystery that’s complicated by his own reputation: He’s a renowned detective, but a solitary warning implies that he may also have a fondness for the bottle. Then there’s the fact that the crime has occurred in a remote, insular environment defined by order and obedience. With a bushy beard and a keen eye that pays immediate dividends, recognizing that the dead cadet’s body boasts injuries consistent with murder, Landor is a formidable stateside Sherlock.
Even if he appears to need no assistance, he receives it courtesy of a cadet by the name of Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling). A fledgling writer who doesn’t fit in at West Point and is habitually ridiculed for his strangeness (both of which are historically true), this fictionalized Poe is a unique intellectual with a sharp mind and a florid disposition. Melling—whose angular, exaggerated features and big, dark eyes bestow him with a haunting profile—brings the future master of the macabre to enthralling life.
While Poe is Landor’s understudy in this homicidal inquiry, he quickly demonstrates his value, interpreting the meaning behind a fragment of a handwritten note that was found clenched in the victim’s hand. Even more astutely, he surmises that the killer must himself be a poet, since a heart would likely be procured not for practical but, instead, for symbolic purposes.
Landor is impressed enough to enlist Poe as his inside-man, having him infiltrate a group of more popular classmates that includes Artemus (Harry Lawtey), the son of West Point’s autopsy-performing staff physician Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones). Poe soon finds himself smitten with Artemus’ sister Lea (Lucy Boynton). The fact that Lea has a suspicious cough and is prone to debilitating seizures is an obvious impediment to their love, although not quite as much as is the discovery of a second body, which further underscores the urgency of his and Landor’s efforts.
Taking its title from Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” The Pale Blue Eye has all the pieces in place for a nerve-wracking whodunit. Unfortunately, once it’s set its scenario in motion, Cooper’s script grinds to a halt, spending so much time on Landor and Poe’s scrutiny of initial clues—and on Landor’s persistent loneliness and grief—that it forgets to up the ante in any appreciable, pulse-pounding manner.
Rather, the film plods along at an unwaveringly methodical pace, the result being that early flickers of excitement gradually begin to fizzle out. Each of the plot’s revelations suggest grander and more gruesome bombshells to come. Yet as with Landor and Poe’s endless talk about communing with the dead (Poe speaks to his dead mom in his sleep; Landor weeps at a shrine to his daughter, caressing one of her ribbons), there’s no payoff to these intimations, just an ever-narrowing plot full of a scant few suspects.
Supernatural elements eventually materialize in The Pale Blue Eye thanks to Landor’s occult-expert buddy Jean-Pepe, who—in a thoroughly unexpected twist—is played by Robert Duvall. Duvall is never an unwelcome presence but he’s relegated to simply spouting convenient expository nonsense about witches and blood rituals while the director provides glimpses of spooky black-and-white illustrations of devils.
So brief is Duvall’s screen time that he comes across as a casualty of the editing process—a fate that also seems to have befallen Charlotte Gainsbourg as Landor’s fleetingly seen bartender girlfriend as well as Gillian Anderson as Dr. Marquis’ wife Julia, an unnecessary character whose sole function is to behave bizarrely. Both she and Duvall deserve better than the second-rate treatment they suffer in the film’s back half, when everything comes to a jarringly anticlimactic head.
Bale is content to let Melling be the proceedings’ most colorful figure, embodying Landor as a serious, self-confident widower wrestling with loss and misery. The Pale Blue Eye demands no heavy lifting from its leading man, and there’s some pleasure to be had in the star’s sturdy, straightforward performance, which is devoid of the tick-heavy flamboyance that he recently brought to Amsterdam.
Bale’s focused intensity remains second to none, and he colors Landor’s edges with hints of bitterness and rage at unjust systems that only care about certain segments of their memberships. Still, as with the narrative itself, his turn never builds to anything striking; Landor carries out his professional duties with calm proficiency, and the secrets he keeps are neither difficult to deduce nor particularly noteworthy. Evocatively creepy yet less than the sum of its parts, Cooper’s latest ultimately proves to be a handsomely mounted shrug of a film.