Writer-director Scott Cooper’s The Pale Blue Eye is a dull, but gorgeously produced and well performed bit of speculative fiction. It’s a film that has all the resources to succeed brilliantly – a stacked cast, unique story, lush score, picturesque and snowy setting, eye catching period detail, shock value, outstanding cinematography – and yet it still manages to be a leaden bore in spite of its better impulses. As a mystery, The Pale Blue Eye is certainly competent, but as a bit of entertainment or anything more thoughtful, it’s inexplicably hollow.
Based on a novel by Louis Bayard and set in 1830, The Pale Blue Eye begins with a mysterious death at the illustrious West Point military academy. A cadet has been found hanging from a tree, the result of an apparent suicide. But as the body is being prepared for burial, someone has broken into the morgue and removed the heart from the cadaver. Enter Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) a civilian detective who quickly deduces that the cadet’s death wasn’t suicide, but murder, and that the removal of the heart suggests a deeply personal grudge. As an outsider at West Point who doesn’t care much for religion or the military, Augustus has to deal with a perpetual code of silence during the course of his investigation. Augustus eventually does find someone he can trust to work as a fellow detective and intermediary with the other cadets at West Point: a young, eager, and eccentric soldier-in-training named Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling).
So far, so good, and that premise certainly offers up enough potential to keep viewers invested in The Pale Blue Eye early on. The core mystery unfolds in as logical a manner as possible (minus one rather silly plot development that occurs during one of several potential climaxes), and Bale’s man of few words has great chemistry with Melling’s loquacious, jittery, and downright nerdy Poe. The supporting cast also offers a near embarrassment of riches: Gillian Anderson and Lucy Boynton as high society women, Robert Duvall as a reclusive expert on symbols, Toby Jones as a well connected medical examiner, Timothy Spall as hard nosed superintendent at West Point, Charlotte Gainsbourg as a bar maid with a soft spot for Augustus. All deliver fine performances, and their contributions are appreciated, even if most of their roles are marginal.
So what makes The Pale Blue Eye such a crushing bore to sit through if there’s so much of it worth commending? It comes down to the simple fact that The Pale Blue Eye is a film that would rather maximize its cast instead of its visual prowess by making them explain most of what’s going on instead of showing it. Cooper (Hostiles, Black Mass, Crazy Heart) has made The Pale Blue Eye into a story that’s largely dialogue driven, and it proves to be the film’s ultimate undoing. While it’s true to the experience of actual detective work – where people are told about things they haven’t seen – that doesn’t make the end results very cinematic. There’s no desire to make the lengthy passages of people talking into anything more than what they are, which makes The Pale Blue Eye feel less like a propulsive and engaging mystery and more like a lecture on speculative literary history.
A lot of The Pale Blue Eye is meant to be literary, with allusions not only to the works Poe would supposedly create after his look into the darker side of human nature but a wide range of other influences. Maybe that’s where Cooper – who has consistently delivered films throughout his career as a director that sound great on paper but are mediocre in execution – was trying to head with this. At best, the long periods of telling without showing feel like listening to a radio play while leafing through a picture book. At worst, they’re frustrating passages that describe something that could’ve looked better on film than what the viewer is currently watching.
This tendency is particularly vexing in the film’s latter stages, which takes things from being mildly watchable to downright patience testing. It’s a film built around multiple climaxes: one that is actually cinematic, but so silly that it strains credibility, and the other that’s pretty much thirty straight minutes of dumping information on the audience. In terms of a mystery, it technically holds together, but it’s a chore to try and get to the point where everything finally makes sense and all is revealed. By the time the credits roll, The Pale Blue Eye has not improved on simply curling up in bed with a good book and letting one’s own imagination fill in the blanks.
The Pale Blue Eye opens at Landmark Cinemas in Whitby, Landmark Cinemas in Kanata, the Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa, The Plaza Theatre in Calgary, the Rio Theatre in Vancouver, The Vic Theatre in Victoria, and Landmark Cinemas Gran in Kelowna on Friday, December 23, 2022. It streams worldwide on Netflix starting January 6, 2023.
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