The Spool / Movies
Edgar Allen Poe solves crimes in the near-Expressionist misfire The Pale Blue Eye
Christian Bale and Harry Melling star in Scott Cooper’s latest portrait of nostalgic modernism, a film as enticing as it is frustratingly incomplete. NOW STREAMING: Powered by JustWatch Scott Cooper’s sense of place and his sense of dread go hand in hand. He was born in Abingdon, Virginia, a city with a population under 10,000, ... Edgar Allen Poe solves crimes in the near-Expressionist misfire The Pale Blue Eye
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Christian Bale and Harry Melling star in Scott Cooper’s latest portrait of nostalgic modernism, a film as enticing as it is frustratingly incomplete.

Scott Cooper’s sense of place and his sense of dread go hand in hand. He was born in Abingdon, Virginia, a city with a population under 10,000, and the place’s melancholy struck him like lightning. Every one of his films is concerned with the impossibility of calling somewhere home, and he shows that even places meant to hold promise are forbidding and corrupt. From the dying factory town of Out of the Furnace to the blood-soaked frontier in Hostiles to the addiction-ravaged backwoods of Antlers, nothing can make Cooper’s America feel anything but haunted. And that’s the case in his latest, The Pale Blue Eye.

Cooper’s ambitions towards a cinema of nostalgic modernism are endearing, but it’s won him few critical allies. It simply isn’t impressive to most critics when your movies are bathed in the somber glow that once illuminated the sagas of Francis Coppola’s Corleone clan or Michael Cimino’s would-be poet warriors (just ask James Gray). If Cooper falls short of his ambition, it’s because either he or his distributors no longer have the patience required for pure expressionism. Try as he might, Cooper won’t indulge in the sensuousness required to fully reach the heights of tragedy he chases.

Augustus Landor (Christian Bale, Cooper’s favorite leading man), a notorious, anti-social detective, is enjoying his retirement when his neighbors, the officers in charge of the prestigious West Point military academy, pay him a visit. A cadet has hung himself, then had his heart cut out. Superintendent Sylvanus Thayer (Timothy Spall) makes it clear that he wants the culprit found discretely. If word got out West Point was harboring a psychopath, that would tarnish the luster of the school but good. He has help from Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) and the academy’s doctor Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones) but he knows if he’s going to get anywhere, it won’t be with people loyal to the cause of the institution breathing down his neck.

Lucky for Landor, then, while he’s reconnoitering the crime scene, a fellow with no loyalty at all introduces himself. The cadet’s name is Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Melling) and he thinks the murderer has to be a poet. After all, why take the heart if not to send a message, to present the authorities with a symbol? With Poe’s help, Landor has to sift through a veritable trawler’s worth of red herrings, as suspect after suspect makes themselves known to the drunken old shamus.

As with all of Cooper’s movies, there are too many extraneous details that keep demanding a place in the narrative, rather than being content to provide much-needed texture. If Cooper paid more attention to his masters, he’d lean more into making his movies resemble paintings, where the primacy of figures in a frame is its own end, rather than the degree to which they move the plot forward. He has the right idea when introducing and refusing to make much sense of Robert Duvall‘s character, a seer of sorts. He exists to provide Bale with one crucial piece of evidence, but mostly he’s just one more pleasingly designed kook in a cast full of them.

The Pale Blue Eye (Netflix)
The Pale Blue Eye. (L to R) Christian Bale as Augustus Landor and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Patsy in The Pale Blue Eye. Cr. Scott Garfield/Netflix © 2022

This can’t also be said of Charlotte Gainsbourg as tavern wench Patsy, who, being played by Gainsbourg, has more than a few minutes of screen time. Unfortunately, she serves no narrative purpose and continues to be shown as she does. Her and Bale’s relationship echoes that of Kris Kristofferson and Isabelle Huppert’s in Heaven’s Gate, except that it contains no significance to the story that Bale is medicating his ill humor with her body as well as liquor. In order for that to register, the film would have to be as much about Bale’s melancholia as the murder case, and it ought to be. But it’s too busy solving its central mystery to revel in his terrible mood and dependency issues, just as it won’t simply sit in any of the gorgeously lit tavern rooms.

Which hints at the central deficiency in Cooper’s artistic diet. Why bother hiring Masanobu Takayanagi, giving him production design by Stefania Cella and Corey Sweazen all over acres of gorgeous Pennsylvania landscapes in gorgeous winter light, and hiring Howard Shore to score his work if you don’t want to take a minute and just enjoy what these people have captured? Why hire the absurdly overqualified likes of Gainsbourg, Duvall, Spall, and Gillian Anderson (whose role I haven’t even gotten to) if your plan is to limit their screen time to when they’re ladling up exposition?

Cooper is in such a rush to arrive at his conclusion(s) that he can’t see what a bounty his cast and crew have served up for his audience and feels too bound to the demands of a modern audience to make the film as modernist and rapturous as it demands at every turn to be. Where are the hollow parties out of The Leopard and The Conformist? Where is the allowance for a mood to hang in the air longer than the dialogue of any given exchange? Just what is Cooper’s great goddamned hurry?

The Pale Blue Eye (Netflix)
The Pale Blue Eye. Christian Bale as Augustus Landor in The Pale Blue Eye. Cr. Scott Garfield/Netflix © 2022

I like Cooper an awful lot, even though he always seems to want to disappoint the utterly humorless, museum-haunting snob in my heart. This may indeed be my favorite of his movies since Out of the Furnace, which nailed the ratio of depressive atmosphere to action much more to my liking. The compositions are stately and menacing, the school and its surrounding cottages are some of the most beautifully rendered and captured in an American horror movie since Coppola’s Dracula, the costumes are stupendous, the color grading is meticulously grotesque but not so drained you can’t enjoy it. Every cut carries the tantalizing hint of the greatest neo-classical genre film in ages, but the next cut always arrives too quickly. Antlers held the same promise until it got bogged down in cod Native American mythology and, like this, a too-rushed final set piece.

For all its hints at the darkest things in the human heart, The Pale Blue Eye’s dramatic ambitions boil down to two very simple ideas, neither handled with particular delicacy. It’s fun watching Bale and Melling (doing a great blowhard Poe, the kind of man who quite clearly sees himself as the future genius he’d become) strut around parlors, cross verbal swords (Bale’s doing the voice of the narrator from Ridley Scott’s famous Hovis bread commercial) and drink and drink and drink.

It’s just that Cooper should have realized that the journey was more important than the conclusion and done something about it. Lean harder on the depiction of the rotting morality of both West Point and the American upper class whose honors its cadets are being trained to defend. Maybe then, our denouement, which arrives in a quick hale of fire and shouting, would have had a little more bite. I really enjoyed The Pale Blue Eye for what it is, but will always mourn what it isn’t.

The Pale Blue Eye comes knock, knock, knocking on the door of select theaters on December 23rd, and Netflix on January 6th.

The Pale Blue Eye Trailer:

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