‘The Pale Blue Eye’: Christian Bale impresses again as detective partnered with young Edgar Allan Poe
Even when the 19th century mystery takes some insanely big dramatic swings, Bale is immersed in his performance.
Christian Bale is one of those otherworldly talents who always makes us believe his character is one with his time and place, whether it’s the Gotham City of the “Dark Knight” trilogy or the Virginia of 1607 in “The New World. or the New York City of 1987 in “American Psycho” or late 19th century London in “The Prestige.” That’s the case once again with Bale’s portrayal of one Augustus Landor, a renowned detective in 1830 who is called upon to solve a grisly crime at the West Point academy in Scott Cooper’s starkly beautiful and quite strange and deeply haunting “The Pale Blue Eye.”
From the moment we see Bale as Landor, his face lined by years of seeing the worst people can do to one another, we believe every inch of his portrayal. Even when writer-director Cooper’s adaptation of Louis Bayard’s acclaimed novel takes some insanely big dramatic swings and doesn’t always connect, Bale is immersed in his performance — equally powerful when he’s quietly revealing a painful moment from his past or exploding with the earth-shattering rage. When the screenplay gives Bale the opportunity to bellow, “DOES YOUR DAUGHTER SPEAK TO THE DEAD!”, you best believe he’s going to lean into that line reading with a ferocity few actors can match.
Augustus Landor is a minister’s son who came from Gloucester in the United Kingdom to the States when he was 13 and became a renowned police constable in New York City, with talents including “code breaking, riot control and interrogation,” as we learn from one of those Movie Tropes scenes in which a character’s back story is recited to him so we can learn more about him. By the year 1830, Landor is a widower living in semi-retirement in Hudson Valley when a small entourage comes calling with a request that Landor come to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, as his particular set of skills is required. With an air of resignation, Landor agrees, saying simply, “It’s a fine day for a ride.”
Netflix presents a film written and directed by Scott Cooper, based on the novel by Louis Bayard. Rated R (for some violent content and bloody images). Running time: 128 minutes. Opens Friday at Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park and Sunday at the Music Box Theatre, then streams on Netflix starting Jan. 6.
Spoiler alert: It’s not really a fine day for a ride. Cooper and cinematographer Masanobu Takayangi employ slightly desaturated colors highlighting the unforgiving, wintry conditions, with the skies free of sunshine and the nights enveloped in fog. It’s a perfectly chilling look for a mystery that begins with the discovery of the body of a cadet named Fry (played by Matt Heim in flashbacks) hanging from a tree from an apparent suicide — after which someone broke into the morgue and carved into Fry’s torso, stealing his heart.
Timothy Spall’s Col. Thayer, who runs the Academy, and Simon McBurney’s Capt. Hitchcock, his second in command, ask Landor if he will get to the bottom of this, with Thayer saying, “I am asking you to save the honor of the United States Military Academy,” while the skeptical Hitchcock admonishes Landor with, “There will be no drinking during the course of this investigation. Your reputation precedes you.”
Cut to Landor in the local pub, slaking his thirst and striking up an instant connection with a barkeep named Patsy (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who points him in the direction of a cadet who might have some insight into the case. That cadet is an odd, socially awkward, unsettlingly intense lad by the name of Edgar Allan Poe, played by Harry Melling in a suitably eccentric performance. (The real Edgar Allan Poe attended West Point for seven months in 1830 before he was booted out for literally dozens of offenses.).
Poe speaks in a kind of sing-song cadence and is prone to bursts of reciting poems and expressions of grief over his dead mother, but Landor also recognizes a kind of ghoulish genius in this man and enlists him as a secret partner in the investigation. It soon becomes apparent that Fry’s death was not a suicide, but a murder, and things get even more bizarre, as we’re plunged into a world involving animal sacrifice, the disappearance of a second cadet, and clues leading Landor and Poe to believe something otherworldly might be afoot.
With the great Howard Shore delivering a score echoing his work on “The Silence of the Lambs,” we meet a variety of memorable characters, including Robert Duvall’s Jean-Pepe, whom Landor describes as “an expert in symbols, rituals, the occult … Pepe might well be the most peculiar man I’ve had the pleasure of coming across.” (And he’s saying this to Edgar Allan Poe!) Then there’s the Marquis family: Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones), the medical examiner; his wife Julia (Gillian Anderson) and their grown children Lea (Lucy Boynton) and Artemus (Harry Lawtey), a cadet at the Academy. They’re a truly weird bunch, and any or all of them could be involved in this unholy mess.
As the truth begins to emerge, “The Pale Blue Eye” veers into territory that might leave some viewers rolling their eyes, but the final twist redeems the storyline and returns us to a certain level of plausibility. This is Bale’s third collaboration with Cooper, after the 2013 crime drama “Out of the Furnace” (one of the best films of the decade) and the 2017 Western “Hostiles,” and they once again make for a most formidable team in telling the story of a world-weary man facing the toughest challenge of a long hard life.