With “The Pale Blue Eye” director Scott Cooper has found his mojo again.
Ever since his excellent 2009 directorial debut “Crazy Heart” and his 2013 sophomore effort “Out of the Furnace,” Cooper had struggled to find a strength in his follow up projects.
2015’s true story of Whitey Bolger “Black Mass” was underwhelming. The director’s 2017 Western “Hostiles” suffered from an undercooked screenplay and weak characterizations that robbed it of any potency while his 2021 Horror effort “Antlers” had a good premise but failed to bring anything new.
“The Pale Blue Eye” finds Cooper with his best work since his 2009 debut.
Christian Bale (racking up a meditative and above-par performance) stars as Augustus Landor, a detective hired by the snooty military leaders of 1830 West Point to investigate the death of a cadet who was found without his heart.
Partnering with a curious young cadet, one Edgar Allan Poe (perfectly brought to life by Harry Melling), Landor discovers a connection to the occult that leads both him and Poe down a dark and dangerous path of conspiracy within the academy.
Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography assures the film keeps a good hold on its bleak winter aura, much of the film is painted with cold blues, from the skies to the icy waters, to the uniforms of the cadets and their superior officers, the blue blends with the muted grey skies until the audience senses the chilly air, the wintery chill associated with the inhospitable reception Landor experiences during his murder investigation.
Enhanced by Takayanagi’s camerawork and Howard Shore’s moody orchestrations, Scott Cooper’s film makes use of the mystery as a tool to examine the darkness that can pollute the purest of hearts.
Bale is astonishingly good as Landor, an interesting and layered character. The detective carries a wounded soul. He loves his drink. As he tells the innkeeper, “The very sight of it warms my blood.” His reputation preceding him, Simon McBurney’s Captain Hitchcock sets some ground rules, ordering Landor not to drink during the investigation.
The always-noticeable Charlotte Gainsbourg is a confidant for Landor and warm body on cold nights. The role is small and an actress with Gainsbourg’s talents should’ve had more to do, but her scenes with Bale finds a pleasant balance between melancholy and peace for the troubled detective.
Cooper is certainly an actor’s director, and the major supporting roles are well cast.
The West Point leaders are played by two fantastic British actors. McBurney is great as Captain Hitchcock, a man who is to the point and seemingly snooty, but later reveals an unexpected kindness. Timothy Spall is rigid excellence as Superintendent Thayer and Toby Jones’s Dr. Marquis is a learned but worried medical examiner who is nowhere close to matching wits with Landor.
The only casting stumble comes with Gillian Anderson as the wife of Dr. Marquis. As the rest of the cast’s performances compliment the somber mood created by Cooper, Anderson’s work plays as a more overly animated caricature. While her character will find importance to the story, Anderson overdoes her little screen time.
Harry Melling could well inhabit the best cinematic incarnation of Edgar Allen Poe yet. Where most actors and screenwriters portray him as sullen, it is said that (in his younger years) he was eccentric. Melling runs with this but sidesteps overkill, making Poe a sensitive soul and a kind man and a sharp mind.
Adapted (by director Cooper) from the novel by Louis Bayard, this is a gripping mystery that unfolds to a potent and shocking conclusion. Using deliberate pace, the filmmaker draws us into the superb story that is blanketed in murder, desecration of bodies, and the occult; a story that, by film’s end, becomes one of personal loss and misguided justice.
“The Pale Blue Eye” is an extremely good film, a candlelit murder tale that uncovers methodically the darker facet of our intellect.