A serial killer saga that’s set along the frozen banks of the Hudson River during the winter of 1830, Scott Cooper’s “The Pale Blue Eye” may be too frigid to thaw out the full potential of its premise, but this well-furnished Netflix whodunnit still has some fun tapping into the cleverest aspect of the Louis Bayard novel from which it’s been adapted: If a young Edgar Allen Poe were involved in solving a series of murders, it would only be a matter of time before everyone started to suspect that he was behind them.
Harry Melling’s heroically weird performance as the death-obsessed poet has the potential to lull viewers into the same trap, even if it would seem that we should know better. Then again, most people don’t know anything about Poe’s brief stint at West Point, where his morbid nature and Southern lilt supposedly made him an irresistible target for some of his more abusive fellow cadets.
While it’s true that Poe is better remembered for inventing the modern detective story than he is for committing the perfect crime, “The Pale Blue Eye” finds him with both the motive to kill and the wit to get away with it. Furthermore, the vague parallels between these events and Poe’s own “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” can’t help but lend this movie a chilly whiff of “Shakespeare in Love” — one way or the other, it’s hard to dig up a new literary genre without getting your hands a little dirty in the process.
And yet, for all that preamble, Poe isn’t the protagonist of this story, nor even necessarily its tell-tale heart. That distinction would fall to Christian Bale’s grieving alcoholic gumshoe, Augustus Landor, whose mind has grown foggy since the death of his wife and the subsequent disappearance of their teenage daughter — perhaps not as foggy as the raven-strewn roads that run along the river outside his house and steep this film in ghostly atmosphere, but it’s clear that Landor is a long way from Sherlock Holmes.
Unfortunately for Brevet Brigadier General Sylvanus Thayer (an underused Timothy Spall, all bluster and neck waddle), Landor is the only game in town, and someone needs to figure out who killed a cadet and removed their heart before Andrew Jackson shuts down West Point. Neither Poe nor Cooper are particularly convinced that shuttering the academy would be such a grave consequence — “The Pale Blue Eye” makes a few meek gestures towards the dehumanizing effects of militarizing young men — but the murder naturally tickles the young Poe’s imagination, and it isn’t long before the brilliant writer-to-be starts volunteering his services to the uncertain Landor.
The kind of movie where people keep muttering things like “dreadful business” in warmed over English accents and spend their nights watching pretty young things plunk out mediocre piano solos by candlelight — or, in Landor’s case, cozying up with a local barmaid played by Charlotte Gainsbourg — “The Pale Blue Eye” begins to double as a stiff but fanciful origin story for both Edgar Allen Poe and also the detective genre he would later help shape. The best stretches of Cooper’s thin and unhurried script find the film checking those two boxes at the same time, as its occult fascination enriches its all-too-human crimes (and vice-versa) until the border that separates this world from the next becomes as blurry as that which runs between reason and madness.
The Landor/Poe dynamic is too nuanced to be reduced to just logic vs. emotion, or left brain vs. right, but it’s fair to say that the sad drunk’s practicality makes him an intriguing partner for the squirrely poet’s imagination, especially once the latter falls lovesick over Lea Marquis (Lucy Boynton), the ailing daughter of West Point’s resident diagnostician (a dithering Toby Jones, who adds to a murder’s row of British character actors that also includes Simon McBurney and Gillian Anderson).
While Bale can only do so much to enliven a guarded character whose behavior isn’t fully legible until a second viewing that the first one may not be intriguing enough to entice, he and Melling eke some off-kilter fun out of a movie that, per Cooper’s usual M.O., seems determined to be as stolid as possible; the “Out of the Furnace” and “Hostiles” director has never been much for levity, though “The Pale Blue Eye” is refreshingly unpretentious when compared to his earlier work.
If only the mystery that Landor and Poe were determined to solve were as prickly or unsettled as their partnership. Fitting as it is that a proto-detective story should be so primitive, the lack of compelling suspects makes the case feel unworthy of its characters, and neither a rising body count nor a wild cameo from Robert Duvall (playing a weirdo phrenologist named Jean-Pépé!) is enough to keep “The Pale Blue Eye” from losing sight of its own strengths for long stretches of time. There’s pathos aplenty under the surface, but the film’s mystery is structured in a way that doesn’t reveal the sly distortions of faith that have been hiding beneath the Hudson until it’s too late to appreciate them.
“Men will do anything to cheat death,” Gainsbourg’s character observes at one point, but shall its weight ever be lifted from our dear Mr. Landor? “Nevermore” would’ve been a more satisfying answer than what “Poe: First Class” leaves us with here, if only because the poet would have to live another 15 years before he understood what all of the ravens were trying to tell him.
Netflix will release “The Pale Blue Eye” in select theaters on Friday, December 23. It will be available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, January 6.
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