While Scott Cooper has never before done a movie I totally connected with I think he’s got a stunning eye for projects that are interesting prior to their execution. Last year’s Antlers, from the Nick Atosca short story “The Quiet Boy,” is an interesting look at dying small towns in rural America through the lens of the native story of the Wendigo and it fell short of what it could have been. I was worried that The Pale Blue Eye would follow suit but I’m pleased with the results if not a bit deflated. Louis Bayard’s historical fiction novel was a favorite of mine in my early teens (when I was hungry for basically anything that related to Poe like the little emo kid I was) and I was hopeful, particularly when the cast was announced.
And The Pale Blue Eye is an absolute blast! Poe’s time at West Point is often forgotten, overshadowed by his later career, but it’s delightfully rediscovered in this misty movie about a serial killer and two pals trying to track them down. The aforementioned pals are Augustus Landor (Christian Bale), an alcoholic widower whose daughter ran away and left him to despair, and Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Milling giving one of the bravest performances of 2021), not yet the major writer and famous addict he would later become. A boy named Leroy Fry (Steven Maier) is found hanging from a tree, his heart carved from his chest, and the facts not adding up. Landor is sent for by West Point’s superintendent, Thayer (Timothy Spall in one of his jowliest performances to date) after things just aren’t adding up for local doctor Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones) in the autopsy. The pair will sneak and speak in private as they work to uncover the mystery of what happened to the cadet as the bodies begin to pile up and something supernatural may or may not be emerging in the woods surrounding the academy.
When you’ve got a murderer’s row of character actors like this there are going to be delightful performances across the board. I got as good as I expected from most but it’s Henry Melling that truly shines. Most forget that Poe had an accent and given that this is the season for Kentucky-fried detectives I think his wild and lanky work measures up with the best of them. Melling is all mewling beignets and wild-eyed fascination, emotion spilling out of every orifice as he delights in poetry and the macabre while decadently delivering bright touches of true emotion and romance. It’s a silly character but it feels appropriate in the mystery he’s bound to.
Bale, on the other hand, is all finesse and buried rage. Grief takes many forms but what Christian Bale delivers here is more intense and focused than anything he’s done since The Fighter. There’s a simmering pot buried within the performance that comes out in little bursts when the unfortunately thin script allows him to come out and play. Scott Cooper just needs someone to take a pass at his writing here and there to allow his flavors to develop properly. Bits about the effect that the militarization of youth has on their adult lives and behavior, moments where chaos and justice are one and the same, and thoughts about the potential brutality of parenthood are all addressed without being given enough room to breathe. If not for a grouping of incredibly specific performances The Pale Blue Eye would fall apart; instead it is able to rise into something more fun than breathtaking.
Much of the success of the film also rises from its incredible design work from Stefania Calla (Downsizing, Black Mass) and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (The Grey, Black Mass). Calla is dumping a metric ton of fog into this frozen hellscape, captured beautifully by Takayanagi’s eye for crane work and drone shots. There’s some really excellent greenscreen work from ILM to fully open this snowy New York state area that helps the others build this gorgeous series of visual images that feels real, lived-in, and unforgiving. The harshness of the snow on gravel matches the grey in Bale’s dark hair and beard while Melling is your exemplary emo boy, pale and gaunt and clad in black as often as allowed when not in a powder blue uniform. Kasia Walicka Maimone (Moonrise Kingdom, Ready Player One) is to thank for the costume designs, which feel period appropriate and still allow enough movement for the characters to not feel bound by their costume drama trappings. You can see every dime of this $72m budget onscreen and the team Cooper assembled has really come through.
While there’s some to be said about thin moments in the script for The Pale Blue Eye I think it’s largely successful. We don’t get many films like this anymore outside of streamers and it’s a shame because Cooper’s latest is his greatest and feels diminished through sketchy wi-fi connections and a television. That said I think the film is an absolute blast, culminating in one of the most beautiful onscreen conversations I’ve ever witnessed between actors of this caliber that have no shame and totally go for broke. It’s beautiful, bleak, and thin enough to not worry a viewer whereas a more intense version might be off-putting for most. This one’s a stunner and I hope you all give it a shot.
Oh, and Gillian Anderson and Robert DuVall are in this thing. That should be enough of a reason to watch it right there.
The Pale Blue Eye is streaming on Netflix.