Review by Sean Boelman
Based on the novel by Louis Bayard, the horror-tinged mystery The Pale Blue Eye is a passion project for filmmaker Scott Cooper — one that he has been trying to have realized for several years at this point. While the film is far from his strongest, Cooper’s strong craftsmanship allows it to be an immersive viewing experience nevertheless.
The movie follows a world-weary detective hired to investigate the vicious murder of a West Point cadet, enlisting the help of another cadet by the name of Edgar Allan Poe. Interestingly enough, this is the second film this year with this premise — after Shudder’s Raven’s Hollow — but this one feels much less like fanfiction.
Ultimately, the biggest weakness of the movie is that the mystery being investigated isn’t all that interesting. The ways in which it integrates grisly murders that, within the film world, “inspired” the works of Poe is intriguing, but the actual meat of the case surrounding it struggles to be as compelling.
That said, Scott Cooper is such a master at building atmosphere that it doesn’t matter if the mystery isn’t intriguing. Even if the viewer isn’t hooked by the story itself, they will be drawn in by the cinematography, costuming, and visual effects that create a macabre world for these characters to exist in.
Still, the slow-burn pacing is likely to put off some viewers. And even when the movie does reveal its hand and the mystery is fully unraveled, the payoff doesn’t feel as big as it should. Although a lot happens in the story, none of the events have enough of a consequence to create any legitimate stakes.
Christian Bale is meant to be the hero of the film, playing the gruff detective investigating the murder, and it’s a performance not too dissimilar from many of the others he has delivered before. That’s not to say it’s a bad turn — he’s quite good at playing this archetype — but it definitely feels like watching Christian Bale investigating the crime rather than the character he plays.
However, the more interesting performance comes from Harry Melling, who plays Poe as a West Point cadet. Melling shows us a very different side of the poet. Rather than the emo loner or introverted hero that he has been shown as in the past, the movie shows him as a quirky weirdo, and Melling perfectly captures those eccentricities.
The Pale Blue Eye is sure to have plenty of detractors citing its slow pacing and inconsequential story. But for those who are a fan of Scott Cooper’s moody, brooding style of horror, this is sure to be an interesting exercise in atmosphere, if nothing else.
The Pale Blue Eye hits theaters on December 23 and streams on Netflix beginning January 6.