West Point, 1830. A world-weary detective is hired to discreetly investigate the gruesome murder of a cadet. Stymied by the cadets' code of silence, he enlists one of their own to help unravel the case — a young man the world would come to know as Edgar Allan Poe.
Sweeping wintery landscapes, shadowy figures at the edge of the screen, and a young Edgar Allen Poe - The Pale Blue Eye is as gothic as one can get in the modern era of streaming. The film enchants audiences with its prose, artistic cinematography and stoic performances. While the mystery keeps evolving the further you fall down the rabbit hole, it needs a certain depth to really capture the true horror of the gothic.
Set a few decades before the American Civil War, the desecration of a cadet's body is under investigation at the United States Military Academy. They enlist the help of a local retired detective to get to the bottom of this madness, and in turn, he enlists the help of another cadet - the young Edgar Allen Poe, who is an outcast among his peers. But the further they tug at the strings of this mystery, the more the world turns darker around them, and they have to wrestle with their own demons.
Director and writer Scott Cooper has an interesting filmography, ranging from the drama Crazy Heart to the gangster film Black Mass to the period drama Hostiles to the horror Antlers. Despite their varying themes, the trappings of the Western genre pop up in most of them. The Pale Blue Eye, however, is a gothic mystery through and through, almost on the nose at times, and runs an extremely slow pace through its detective story.
This kind of film requires an audience's full attention with no distractions, despite its long beats and losing momentum from time to time. The mystery tends to be a writhing thing that's hard to grasp, and some might be disappointed by its hasty reveal and final conclusion. It was quite an unexpected turn for me and gave a good scratch to my detective itch.
Luckily, the pace is anchored by imposing performances from Christian Bale and Harry Melling. Bale leans into his stoic talents, only letting the emotions run through at precise moments as needed. It pairs perfectly with the sombre film's tone, but Bale often felt disconnected from what's happening around him - which could be attributed more to the character's writing than his acting. On the other hand, Melling lived and breathed the famous Gothic poet, even looking eerily similar to him, giving the performance of his career so far as every word drips with poetic gravitas. He might overdo it a bit with the accent, but in contrast to Bale, Melling is wholly present in every moment, and his final scene leaves an indelible impact that will be hard to forget.
The haunting cinematography is another major highlight, filmed at historic sites and set within ghostly snowscapes that work on the audience's imagination without the filmmaker's prompts. The melancholy of winter creates the perfect tone for mayhem, murder and mystery and creates art with every frame. The forest, the doctor's classroom, the pub, the detective's lonely cottage - each setting is a character in itself and shows that Cooper has a good sense for the gothic genre when it comes to making your scenery alive.
Beautiful, slow and gloomy, The Pale Blue Eye is a pleasant enough detour for any mystery and gothic devotees, although its flaws might be too glaring for some to ignore. Best watched during the dark of night as our summer season might be at odds with its mood or something to hold off on until our own winter has made its return and you can fully immerse yourself within its cold grip.
Cast: Christian Bale, Harry Melling, Gillian Anderson, Lucy Boynton, Robert Duvall
Our rating: 3/5 Stars
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