Christian Bale has a face made for the gothic.
At this stage of his career—36 years after his youthful appearance in Steven Spielberg’s war drama, Empire of the Sun—Bale’s screen presence has a certain care-worn cragginess about it. And judging from the roles he seems to have chosen lately, the physical cragginess has a rather preoccupied, even somber, inner characteristic to accompany it, as if the actor’s onscreen adversities have somehow become a permanent part of the package.
With that in mind, a literary/historical melodrama like Scott Cooper’s The Pale Blue Eye makes a certain amount of sense for the actor. It’s a fictionalized murder mystery involving persons in and around the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1830, including a private detective named Augustus Landor (Bale) and a lonely misfit among the corps of cadets, one Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling). In theory, strange things would happen and Bale’s character could doggedly uncover the truth and bring the killer(s) to justice, with input from the Divine Edgar. Unfortunately, the film has problems.
Someone is killing West Point cadets in gruesomely violent ways, and the academy’s officials are worried that the crimes are sullying the reputation of the relatively new armed forces institution. As in all too many mysteries, the detective doggedly makes the rounds—in this case, New York’s Hudson River Valley (actually shot on location in snowy Pittsburgh, Pa.)—while interacting with most of the likely suspects. For a movie built along such slender lines, The Pale Blue Eye boasts a generous cast of veteran character actors, all gussied up in their early-19th-century duds and hamming away at a controlled boil.
West Point’s superintendent Thayer (whiskery, grumpy Timothy Spall) and his adjutant, Capt. Hitchcock (Simon McBurney, shifty-eyed as usual), are inclined to harrumph loudly while doing very little investigating. Capt. Hitchcock is the proud owner of the most stilted lines, with delivery to match—although Melling’s Poe is also a leading contender. The academy physician, Dr. Marquis (Toby Jones), scowls constantly, and the other characters tend to strut around officiously or else slowly examine the floorboards, like Landor the sleuth. The pace is glacial.
Only Mrs. Marquis, the doctor’s wife (Gillian Anderson), has the power to rescue the film with her outrageous outbursts—they’re the few scenes that offer any unpredictability. The doctor’s daughter, a cultured blond (Lucy Boynton), seems to warm to the general melancholy, then suddenly faints. West Point is a fortress of guilty secrets.
In a more typical tribute to the author of “The Raven,” military misfit Poe would be the center of the action, but writer-director Cooper (Hostiles, Black Mass, Crazy Heart), adapting Louis Bayard’s 2006 novel, seems unwilling to fully bring out the inherent grotesquery in actor Melling’s pale, haunted features. The real-life cadet Poe was well noted for his disciplinary troubles. Left to his own devices here, this Poe mostly drinks and recites poetry.
Harry Potter alumnus Melling (also memorable from The Tragedy of Macbeth and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), it should be said, needs to be placed into a scenario carefully, before he wilts. He wouldn’t last a minute in a scene opposite Vincent Price. But wait, there are more role players: Robert Duvall as scholarly witch hunter Prof. Jean Pépé; Charlotte Gainsbourg as Patsy the barmaid; and Hadley Robinson in the shadowy role of Mattie, detective Landor’s late lamented daughter, a major figure in his dreams.
The less said about the film’s clumsy attempts to link its characters to E.A. Poe’s actual works, the better. The Pale Blue Eye, a bad movie encumbered by a good cast, probably came across better in outline than it does onscreen. Before the plot suddenly tromps heavily into the horror realm in the fourth quarter, it’s a plain, ordinary, morbid whodunit, with plenty of dark rooms and odd faces, and literary inclinations it never quite takes advantage of.
Streaming on Netflix.