The rebirth of the murder mystery has been a fun surprise for cinephiles. 2022 featured a cavalcade of mystery hits. Headlined by Glass Onion, Bodies Bodies Bodies, and Confess, Fletch, the murder mystery is alive and well. While most of these occurred in contemporary settings, The Pale Blue Eye rewinds to the 1830s. The historical fiction features beautiful period details, wonderful costumes, and one of America’s most famous literary figures. However, the mystery and pacing of The Pale Blue Eye leave something to be desired.
Based on the novel by Louis Bayard, The Pale Blue Eye takes us inside West Point in 1830. A student has been murdered. Worse, his body was found mutilated. Detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) receives a summons to investigate possible satanic activity. Landor’s ties to West Point are frayed after a secretive incident with his daughter left him cold to the world. As he investigates, a young student named Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Melling) shows interest in Landor’s investigation.
Director Scott Cooper thrives when making dark and gritty films. The air of melancholy and gloom floats over The Pale Blue Eye, adding a grimy atmosphere. The period setting certainly helps, but the choices of in-camera filters, fog effects, and drab period garments further immerse us in Cooper’s vision. This ends up being wise. The murders depicted on-screen become especially heinous and disgusting. Mutilation becomes part of these killings. Somehow, the subtext and mystery of the film hold an even darker secret at its center. Cooper never embraces nihilism, but he also never shies away from the difficulty of this world.
As usual, Bale comes to play with a nuanced and emotional performance. Few actors are better at invoking emotion in their eyes, and Bale’s ten-thousand-foot stare makes the audience aware Landor is broken. What makes this turn so engaging is the restraint. Bale can swing for the fences with the best of them (see Thor: Love and Thunder). Yet here, he’s calm and collected, allowing his co-stars to light up the screen.
Meanwhile, Melling gets the showy part. Not only does putting Poe in a murder mystery intrigue, but Melling plays the young writer with vigor. Melling ensures Poe displays a passion for the literary aspects of the case while the grim details fascinate him. At the same time, the young actor adopts the Virginian accent (where Poe was raised until 18) and delivers several monologues throughout the film. It’s a performance that plays to the rafters yet also contains enough pathos and oddity it’s impossible to resist.
The rest of the ensemble shines in stretches. Toby Jones gets some excellent moments opposite Bale. Timothy Spall shows off his blustery side, and frankly, few things are more enjoyable. Simon McBurney continues his excellent character actor work, embracing the brashness of a military man and the frustration of knowing the murders are coming from inside the academy. The women of the film are rather one note, but Lucy Boynton, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Gillian Anderson each get standout moments. However, they are often relegated to the sidelines, if not entirely seen through their relationship with the men of the story.
The performances and craft bring The Pale Blue Eye to life, but the pacing weighs it down. The runtime of two hours is not particularly egregious. However, long sections of characters pouring over books in darkly lit rooms does not help. There’s a tactile nature to some of these sequences, but others feel like window dressing. The costumes are beautiful in their own way, but the visual aesthetics of the film wash out the color. You can tell the craft is there, but the overcast nature of the film dampens the mood. This will sway some away from the tale, yet The Pale Blue Eye offers genuine thrills to do those who stick with it.