Edgar Allan Poe is among the most well-known literary figures, with a distinct style that has inspired so much horror and other fiction in the century and a half since his death. Those not intimately familiar with his work will likely still have some sense of what to expect from him and whether or not the genre appeals. The Pale Blue Eye draws Poe himself into a murder mystery that he could easily have written, investigating a crime that may have supernatural components or merely just be the work of those who mistakenly believe they are serving some evil higher power.
In the adaptation of Louis Bayard’s 2003 novel, Detective August Landor (Christian Bale) is enlisted by Superintendent Thayer (Timothy Spall) and Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) following the murder of a cadet at the United States Military Academy in West Point in 1830. After his death, his heart is ripped out, which adds suspicion of satanic practices. As Landor begins his investigation, he meets an eccentric cadet who is also a budding poet, none other than Poe (Harry Melling). The two men are both outcasts of a sort from society with their own unique styles and who prove very useful to each other as more mutilated dead bodies pile up on campus.
Bale is no stranger to this kind of role, and while it’s hard to discern his constantly-changing accent, he fits the bill well enough. This is a far more worthwhile showcase for Melling, an actor who began his career as Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter film series and has since delivered standout support in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Keeper, and opposite Anya Taylor-Joy in the Emmy-winning limited series The Queen’s Gambit. This is a revelatory turn, one that finds Melling engaging with all of Poe’s particularities, making him keenly observant and just as pluckily eager to share his knowledge, even and especially when his comments are unwelcome. His magnetic performance anchors a film that might otherwise feel too serious were it not for his rambunctious, off-kilter energy.
Because this is a story about Poe, however, it does still feel appropriately dark. The nature of the murders and the post-mortem removal of organs is certainly grisly, though the effects are typically seen after the fact, making this a moody gothic thriller rather than an outright horror film. There is a procedural nature to it as the commanders of the military academy seek to preserve their institution’s reputation while failing repeatedly to preserve their cadets’ lives, and they are understandably frustrated that Landor works at a deliberate pace that feels quite unhurried when there are literally lives on the line.
This is the third collaboration between writer-director Scott Cooper and Bale, and their established working relationship allows for the film to focus on its rich supporting cast of almost entirely non-Americans. The hard-working Toby Jones, who also appears in 2022 films The Wonder and Empire of Light and the limited series, The English, is put to good use as the town doctor, whose family members are portrayed by Gillian Anderson and two very promising young actors who have previously done great work on television, The Politician’s Lucy Boynton and Industry’s Harry Lawtey. The stacked ensemble also includes Robert Duvall, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Fred Hechinger.
The film’s 128-minute runtime can feel sluggish at times, but it’s also about building a stylized, consistent momentum that at few points reaches a full-throttle speed. Mystery enthusiasts will appreciate several twists that add flavor to what would otherwise have been a rather simplistic and disappointingly straightforward crime story, with period visuals and a score by Howard Shore to aid the experience. Though it is fictional, this feels like exactly the right setting for a Poe biography, one that is somehow both alluring and off-putting at the same time, designed to linger and haunt the way so many of his poems and stories do.
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The Pale Blue Eye premieres on Netflix on Friday, January 6th.