Back in 2012, I reviewed a film called The Raven, a particularly ridiculous film about the last days of Edgar Allen Poe’s life where Poe himself has to help a detective track down a killer who’s basing his crimes off of Poe’s stories. I had mostly forgotten about it until I saw the trailer for The Pale Blue Eye, another murder mystery casting Poe as a lead character. The trailer assured me this would me a much more sober, mature piece of historical fan fiction. I would soon find out that it was also much more tedious and monochromatic, and that at least something ridiculous is usually something entertaining.
The year is 1830. Retired detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) is called in when a cadet at nearby West Point is found hanged in the forest. Landor quickly deduces that the cadet was murdered and brings into his investigation a particularly observant and poetic cadet named Edgar Allen Poe (Henry Melling). Their search begins to turn up clues that suggest the occult, and they end up becoming ingratiated with the Marquis family, especially when Poe falls in love with the beautiful Lea Marquis (Lucy Boynton).
Right from the first scenes, there’s an air of self-importance hanging around The Pale Blue Eye. It’s an undeniable aura, heavy and ponderous. I can’t really explain it other than that. Every step that the film takes feels like one that has been carefully calibrated in a deliberate, unnecessary larghetto. I’m not asking for a Poe-inspired mystery to be a thrill ride; that would be course correcting in the other extreme direction. But a little movement would be nice; would it kill you to pick up the pace a little?
The visuals don’t help matters one single bit. The film takes place during winter, so outdoor scenes are sadly but appropriately bleak, and for the most part, the color palette doesn’t stray far from muted tones and natural colors. Most scenes are shot in a rather cool light, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself unless it’s almost all you have. It makes the scenes inside the warmly-lit Marquis home seem like you’re coming in from the cold. A shame those bits are too far and between.
To be fair to writer/director Scott Cooper, he clearly has a direction and vision in mind for his film. At least that’s what it feels like in the first half. The film is based off a novel by Louis Bayard that I admit I hadn’t heard of prior to seeing the film, so I don’t know how much of the story Cooper embellished. What’s here is not inherently bad; the narrative starts in a relatively compelling manner even if it takes its sweet time going from beat to beat.
The story starts to become truly interesting once the first hint of an occult motive for the murder appears, and we get teased that this might turn into a mystery worthy of being attached to Edgar Allen Poe’s name. Alas and alack. Just as soon as the story starts getting just a little bit juicy and exciting, Cooper pulls back the reins and retreats into a historical drama headspace. It’s literally an hour later when he comes back around to the occult angle and you remember “Oh, yeah…”
The film takes a huge detour to focus on the relationships between the characters, both Landor and Poe as well as Poe and Lea Marquis. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. For as tedious as the film gets, the actors are for the most part committed to their roles. But the longer we spend on these relationships, the less we pull away from the whole point of the film. You know. The mystery part of this murder mystery.
If we have to spend more time with these characters than we need to, at least we get some decent performances. Christian Bale effortlessly slips into Landor’s spirit, both embodying his quest for the truth as well as his own personal damage that colors it. It can sometimes seem that Bale is coasting, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt here. As for Henry Melling, his performance as Poe is never not entertaining, but not always for the proper reasons. He speaks with an accent that can best be described as an off-brand Benoit Blanc, but at least he fully devotes himself to it. He’s clearly engaged in the role, showing a more vulnerable and human Poe than we might expect, and he’s probably giving a more researched performance than the film deserves.
The supporting cast is definitely a mixed bag, however. There are a lot of secondary characters — one might say far too many — and it seems sometimes that the actors are doing their best to make an impression at any cost. The most notable offender is Gillian Anderson as Lea’s mother Julia. Anderson’s performance is a collection of community theatre tics in an exaggerated and nigh unplaceable accent that is far too camp for the staid canvas Cooper is painting on. Don’t get me wrong; she’s unintentionally hilarious, but that’s probably not what was meant to happen here. Similarly, Timothy Spall as the superintendent of the academy comes off as a rejected side character from Blazing Saddles redressed in a military uniform. Again, probably not the vibe we’re looking for.
One of the film’s most egregious faults is its length. It’s at least 20 minutes too long, and that’s not including the extended epilogue. Right when you think the film has reached a good conclusion, there’s a final plot twist and a whole lot of exposition and retconning that gets more insufferable the longer it goes on. Cooper has major pacing issues as it is, and the final twist just helps remind you that the film should have been over long before this point. Fun fact: the soundtrack album, featuring Howard Shore’s well-orchestrated and surprisngly dynamic score, is only 48 minutes long. The film is 128 minutes long, credits included. A final product in the center of that range would have probably made everything tighter and more exciting (or at least made everything end quicker).
Before I started writing this review, I re-read my review of The Raven. I found a new appreciation for that film’s audacity, for lack of a better word. It didn’t work as a movie, really, but watching it flail around in a desperation to do so was at least amusing. I didn’t really get any of that out of The Pale Blue Eye. Too serious for its own good, and with a visual palette and pace that both suggests a frozen hinterland, it’s not so much a whodunit as it is a whybother.
FBOTU Score: 4 out of 10 / C-