On paper, a movie in which a handsome young Edgar Allan Poe attempts to solve a grueling murder in the blistering cold of the Hudson Valley in the early 1800s sounds like a surefire recipe for success. Sadly, frequent collaborators Scott Cooper and Christian Bale’s newest project, The Pale Blue Eye, suggests that good-on-paper is all that this story will ever be.
Based on Louis Bayard’s 2003 novel of the same name, The Pale Blue Eye follows Augustus Land (Bale), a rugged, retired detective whom the U.S. military enlists to help solve the brutal killing of a young West Point cadet. Realizing he can’t solve the head-scratching crime on his own, Augustus enlists the help of who, you might ask? Well, Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling), of course!
From there, The Pale Blue Eye does its very best to adopt the sullen, wind-chilled, uneasy tone of a good winter detective story, while also striving to shake things up by adding a couple (debatably) clever twists and, of course, making one of the world’s most famous poets a protagonist.
Despite these noble attempts, The Pale Blue Eye never really leaves the ground. Between over-long scenes of inconsequential dialogue that take an eternity to go anywhere if at all, and far too understated performances from the leads—Bale is wonderful and weathered as always, but having him near-whisper the majority of his lines doesn’t do his complex characters any favors—The Pale Blue Eye and its cast lack the energy and momentum required for a truly riveting, compelling mystery.
Perhaps most frustrating about The Pale Blue Eye’s languid atmosphere is that the film often scratches at greatness. A subplot that involves black magic, for example, is effortlessly intriguing, while the disappearance of Augustus’ beautiful young daughter Mattie (Hadley Robinson) is an ambiently compelling thread that lingers hauntingly throughout the background of the film. But perhaps the biggest tease in The Pale Blue Eye is its setup, which is just about as riveting as any film premise of recent years: The aforementioned dead cadet appears to have hanged himself, but in the morgue, workers discover that his heart has been ripped from his chest.
This chilling image alone is enough to pique our interest. Perhaps more intriguing, however, is that a misplaced heart is undoubtedly a nod to The Tell-Tale Heart, which sees a murder solved because the culprit’s heart is beating too loud. This isn’t the only time The Pale Blue Eye teases looming Poe parallels: A drowned young woman evokes the poem “Annabel Lee” and there are dozens of shots or ravens, for goodness sake! I mention all of these allusions because you might be asking, at this point, why the hell is Poe in this movie, anyway?
Sadly, the film never quite earns the right of his presence. Indeed, while it isn’t totally unfounded (he did attend West Point), Cooper never really makes good on these allusions, as they tend not to go much of anywhere. This is a shame, as Poe’s fiction is consistently thrilling and engaging—which The Pale Blue Eye often is not. Juxtaposing great detective stories with such a lackluster one, too, only makes the latter stick out as a misfire. It also makes Poe’s inclusion feel gimmicky and distracting.
This isn’t to say, however, that there aren’t parts of The Pale Blue Eye that work. Masanobu Takayanagi’s camerawork steals the show: He designs interior shots with melting, painterly golden candlelight and exteriors with slow-moving, wide-open shots of the surrounding barren land, easily emphasizing the unrestrained tundra-esque frigidity of the 19th century Hudson Valley. He unambiguously plunges us into a haunted gothic atmosphere. The rest of The Pale Blue Eye doesn’t match up to Takayanagi’s expertise. It’s a sluggishly slow murder-mystery without much tension, one holding a candle to Poe’s work Nevermore.
Director: Scott Cooper
Writer: Scott Cooper
Stars: Christian Bale, Harry Melling, Simon McBurney, Timothy Spall, Toby Jones, Harry Lawtey, Fred Hechinger, Joey Brooks, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Lucy Boynton, Robert Duvall, Gillian Anderson
Release Date: January 6, 2023 (Netflix)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.