There’s something about the world’s first detective novelist that makes writers and filmmakers envision him as a gentleman sleuth.
A courtly, erudite romantic with morbid streak and a Virginia drawl, Edgar Allan Poe must have been one of the inspirations for “Glass Onion” peeler Benoit Blanc. That Poe himself is on the case in the period pieces “The Raven” and last summer’s “Raven’s Hollow,” a writer solving a mystery that directly implicates him, there is no doubt. That’s also the case in Louis Bayard’s novel “The Pale Blue Eye,” which shares its Poe-as-a-West-Point-cadet setting with “Raven’s Hollow,” on the page and now on the screen.
There could not be more compelling subject for a Virginia filmmaker like Scott Cooper to lure his “Hostiles” star Christian Bale to than Poe and a macabre murder mystery bathed in gloom, snow and unstinting period detail.
Bale stars as Augustus Landor, a retired New York police constable whose last years of highlands solitude are interrupted by a summons from the nearby U.S. Military Academy. A cadet has died by hanging, and the captain (Simon McBurney) sent to fetch Landor, and the school’s commanding officer Colonel Thayer (Timothy Spall) figure they could use the help of an investigator, expert code breaker and master of “gloveless interrogation” (no torture) to figure out what’s happened.
“Discretion” is called for. And sobriety. Yes, they’ve heard all about the widowed Landor, whose only daughter disappeared as well. If this matter isn’t tidied up, this still-new school could be defunded and shut down, Col. Thayer, the superintendent frets. So “no drinking” on the job.
Landor finds himself examining the body, correcting the school physician (Toby Jones), questioning witnesses, looking for clues and then abruptly offered help by this quirky uniformed weirdo with the big forehead and floridly poetic speech.
“It is incumbent upon me and the honor of this institution to share some of the conclusions which I have reached.”
Yes, we know who this oddball cadet is before Landor figures that out. It’s the already-published poet, drinking and gambling University of Virginia drop-out and future father of detective fiction Edgar Allan Poe. Perhaps he (Harry Melling) can be of some assistance?
As the dead man had his heart carved out, as mutilated animals have been found nearby and as a second cadet turns up hanged, Landor is going to need someone inside the institution to break down clues and sift through suspects.
Cooper, whose break-out film was the Jeff Bridges Oscar winner “Crazy Heart,” keeps the thriller elements on slow simmer, bathing his players in atmosphere and his characters in schemes, paranoia and suspicion.
If there’s an overriding shortcoming to this languorous mystery it is pacing. There’s little urgency to any of it, lessening the fear of violence. The cadet corps — central to this story and very much the focus of last summer’s “Raven’s Hollow” — is comprised of thinly-developed characters.
Despite that, and a drawn-out finale, “Pale Blue Eye” manages to be entertaining thanks to its impressive scope, gorgeous appearance and dazzling casting.
Gillian Anderson brings a matronly yet highly-strung gentility to Mrs. Marquis, the doctor’s wife. Lucy Boyton (“Murder on the Orient Express,” “Bohemian Rhapsody”) plays her daughter, the head-turning beauty named Lea with whom every cadet is instantly smitten, especially Poe. It’s a pity about that tubercular cough.
Charlotte Gainsbourg is the cook, waitress and sex worker down at the local inn, a woman of experience and a font of gossip.
And Robert Duvall plays an aged, bookish “expert,” the consultant many a detective movie leans on to explain the parameters of the mystery — Perhaps witchcraft? — to our constable and to the audience.
Bale is as compelling and subtle as he always is on screen, playing another character who rarely lets go of his inner reserve and never shows his hand.
But the fun in “The Pale Blue Eye” is the quizzical, verbose and unflappable Poe that Melling and the screenplay bring us. Melling, a veteran of of “The Queen’s Gambit” and the Harry Potter films, gives the film its spark and wit. Why were the victims’ hearts carved out? Because the killer must have been…a POET!
“The heart is a symbol, or it is nothing!”
Bale seems positively tickled at some of Melling’s little flourishes, his plummy way with a purple line, his character’s youthful assumption of expertise.
“Were you followed?”
“FOLLOWED? How unprofessional!“
Melling makes us believe in this Poe, a troubled, delicate creature whose late mother is still his muse, the woman who “dictates” this clue or that poem to him in his sleep. If her boy is obsessed by this “beautiful creature” Lea, there’s nothing for it but for Mother to feed him poems about the fair “Lenore” that will one day make his name.
Novelist Bayard took as his inspiration/jumping off point Poe’s last published book, “Landor’s Cottage,” but the mystery he concocted and Cooper adapted is messier and more convoluted than need be, with an epilogue that over-explains the tale’s twists.
As with many good filmmakers cashing Netflix checks, Cooper would have been served realizing less script clutter lets his latest film lean on its real treasures. Those are a glorious and accomplished cast walking (never horseback riding) through a vivid, overcast 1830s snowscape, an American Gothic nightmare too generic and a tad too slow, but made entertaining by what every actor on the payroll brings to the show.
Rating: R for some violent content and bloody images.
Cast: Christian Bale, Harry Melling, Lucy Boynton, Gillian Anderson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Simon McBurney, Timothy Spall, Charlie Tahan, Fred Hechinger, Toby Jones and Robert Duvall.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Scott Cooper, based on a novel by Louis Bayard. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:09