Scott Cooper | 2hr 8min
The resurgence of murder mysteries in recent years has been undeniable, especially with the popularity of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out series, Kenneth Branagh’s revival of Hercule Poirot, and several other standalone whodunnits gaining traction including Bodies Bodies Bodies and See How They Run. In The Pale Blue Eye, Scott Cooper jumps on the trend with a detective tale that at once calls back to the genre’s western roots in 19th century literature, and yet which also possesses more modern sensibilities in its historical revisionism.
Edgar Allen Poe is still a young cadet in the United States Military Academy here, not yet a famed writer of Gothic poems and short stories, yet still consumed by an obsession with the macabre. In effect, this is his fictionalised origin, laying out the pieces of inspiration which would later drive him to write about guilty consciences, cryptic puzzles, and grisly murders. He is not our primary protagonist though – Detective Augustus Landor is the one sought out by local authorities when bodies of cadets start turning up with their hearts mysteriously cut from their torsos. It doesn’t take long for him to join forces with a sharp-minded, inquisitive Edgar, who has taken a morbid interest in the cases. As the chilly mist clears across white, frozen landscapes, a mysterious conspiracy of occult horror and dark family secrets emerges, revealing a devastating anguish that resides in heroes and villains alike.
It is far easier to settle into the bleak frigidity of Cooper’s desolate style than his lethargic narrative, which often seems to oscillate between listless inertia and eerie intrigue. Most notably, the stray attempts to offer Augustus a pained backstory by way of distracted flashbacks never quite feels one with the film until the end, leaving us to wonder just how much of this 128-minute run time could have been shaved down to a tighter film. Even a drawling, scenery-chewing Harry Melling as Edgar and Christian Bale’s gloomy detective aren’t enough to pull us through these patches. That said, Cooper’s casting doesn’t go entirely to waste – both stars mix well in this ensemble of famous faces, making allies and suspects out of Timothy Spall, Toby Jones, Gillian Anderson, Charlotte Gainsborough, and Robert Duvall.
Regardless of how connected they are to the central murders, darkness infects the hearts of many of these figures, and radiates out into the frosty atmospheres that encompass them. Cooper often keeps us at a distance from his characters in his handsome long shots, emphasising the negative space left behind by snowy fields and foggy forests, and later he drives up the tension with an unnerving pair of high angles teetering us on the edge of an icy cliff. The only shelter from these harsh elements comes in equally cold interiors, lit by thick candles dripping with melted wax and bearing sinister Gothic designs.
Given that the film’s final act almost seems to be on the verge of fizzling out, it is particularly fortunate that Cooper manages to ultimately stick the landing. Just as the horror and evil of Edgar Allen Poe’s writing exists to conceal its deeper layers of melancholy, so too do the ugly actions of Cooper’s characters arise from their obscure emotional wounds. For them, the only way to fight a cruel universe is to arm oneself with even greater cruelty. As flawed as its storytelling may be as, The Pale Blue Eye does not hold back on its grotesque thrills, constructing the sort of enigmatic, disturbing world that we can only imagine gave birth to such a morbid literary imagination.
The Pale Blue Eye is currently streaming on Netflix.
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