By George Bate
Slowly but surely, the murder mystery genre appears to be making a comeback. After years of being contained to investigative episodes of episodic television, movies like Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, Bodies Bodies Bodies, and more highlight this resurgence.
The Pale Blue Eye, now streaming on Netflix, is another prime example of this. An unapologetic murder mystery, director Scott Cooper’s latest film blends a mid-19th century investigation with a splash of horror and even a little bit of non fiction as well, given the presence of real life poet and writer Edgar Allen Poe. Despite that, the story itself is fictional, based on a novel by Louis Bayhard. Much like the film, The Pale Blue Eye was also a historical murder mystery in its literary form.
This film follows Christian Bale, a regular collaborator with Cooper, as August Landor, a solitary detective tasked with solving the mysterious death of a young cadet on military campus grounds. Edgar Allen Poe, played by Harry Melling, comes into the picture when he’s recruited by Landor to be a co-detective of sorts in this investigation. What was initially thought of to be a suicide quickly turned into Landor realizing that the young solider had been murdered and mutilated, with his heart cut out. The film moves forward from there with a steady, and heavy, pacing throughout.
The Pale Blue Eye is certainly a contemplative film. Director Cooper wants the audience to think, not only about the mystery that’s unfolding across these two hours but about the words being spoken and the many horrors that ensue in this world. Edgar Allen Poe in particular offers many thought provoking monologues that expertly convey his position as one of the best writers in American literature history as well as a valuable asset in finding the murderer in this story. It’s also important to note that, despite the similarities in its premise, The Pale Blue Eye is not related in any way to The Raven, a 2012 film starring John Cusack as Poe. In that outing, Cusack’s iteration also helps solve a murder. The Pale Blue Eye does successfully stand apart from that film, especially given the fact that Harry Melling’s Poe is a much younger, youthful version, although just as intelligent and quirky.
What’s interesting is that, in many ways, The Pale Blue Eye as a story could easily exist without Edgar Allen Poe’s involvement, such is the presence of Christian Bale’s lead character and his central role within this mystery. Despite that, Melling certainly makes an impact on the film with his believable and powerful take on this real life person. Melling immediately stands out in his first scene with his sheer level of intelligence and seemingly endless vocabulary, combined with an enthusiasm to help with Landor’s case. Melling plays this extremely well, perfectly showcasing Poe’s many talents while also never coming off as too arrogant or treading over Landor as the lead hero.
Predictably, Christian Bale is another that gives a great performance in this film. His is much more subtle than Melling’s, understandably so, but Bale still shines throughout. Despite looking and sounding the same way that he does in most of his films, Bale somehow manages to give a transformative performance. He truly feels like a seasoned, hardened detective, and one with a troubled past that still haunts him. For an actor with so many famous and memorable past roles, from American Psycho to The Dark Knight, Bale leaves that all behind and truly embodies Landor in this film.
Landor is certainly the heart of this film, insofar as his presence as the principle investigator of these murders, and he is crucial to the overall mystery. Without spoilers, the story largely plays out in a satisfying manner, using the structure of a classic investigation tale as the basis for Landor’s case work. In a way, there are multiple twists here, both arriving in the third act, and the last in particular serves as the icing on the cake for what is ultimately an unpredictable yet satisfying resolution.
If there is criticism to be had for The Pale Blue Eye, it’s that the contemplative nature can, at its lowest points, slump down to a stir up a sense of boredom. This film is, for the most part, an entertaining watch, but one could argue that there’s a few too many long monologues or deeply thematic, melancholic moments that all end up blending into one.
Harry Melling and Christian Bale shine in Netflix’s The Pale Blue Eye, which works well as a classic murder mystery, a period piece, and a thematic tale of life and death. While occasionally losing focus and dragging on a bit too much, Scott Cooper’s latest work is certainly well worth the watch.