There is a penetrating and cruel coldness in the air around the West Point Military Academy in New York State, beyond the perpetual snow of the seemingly endless winter of 1830; Cadet Leroy Fry has been found hanged, and Augustus Landor is asked by the supervising authorites to carry out enquiries with extreme discretion, the body having been mutilated post mortem as it lay in the morgue.
The initial examination by Doctor Marquis sloppy, Landor is swiftly able to confirm that it was indeed murder rather than suicide, and recruiting another cadet to assist his investigations, one Edgar Allan Poe, Landor follows the scant clues of a torn note and Fry’s diary, but with farm animals similarly mutilated and a second cadet found dead his progress is deemed unsatisfactory by those in charge who require a suspect be identified and charged before any further deaths occur.
Based on Louis Bayard’s 2013 novel of the same name, The Pale Blue Eye is adapted and directed by Scott Cooper, a dark murder mystery which places Edgar Allan Poe in a fictional setting and casts him as an investigator similar to one of his own characters, a premise which parallels the recently released horror Raven’s Hollow and is equally filled with the hallmarks of Poe’s work, cyphers, dubious nocturnal assignations and the burden of deceased family members on the living.
As Landor, forbidden from touching alcohol for the duration of the case, his reputation both good and bad preceding him, Thor: Love and Thunder’s Christian Bale proceeds with his customary dedication and determination but fails to elicit sympathy, and already possessing a physical resemblance to the writer Say Your Prayers’ Harry Melling makes Poe a pretentious artiste, an outsider somewhat in love with loneliness but who talks at great length when given the chance.
The dialogue indicating the name of the work is drawn from Lenore – in fact the phrase The Pale Blue Eye does not appear in Poe’s poem – the period detail of the film is impeccably crafted, the costume and locations illuminated by flickering lamplight in images half lost in murky shadow, but taking place over a period of more than a month the pace is correspondingly sluggish, lacking the sense of purpose which drove Cooper’s earlier western drama Hostiles over similarly grim terrain.
The supporting cast of Toby Jones, Timothy Spall and Robert Duvall given minimal reason to exert themselves with only Gillian Anderson marking her territory as Mrs Julia Marquis, highly strung matriarch of eccentric tendencies and brittle temper, Landor’s ultimate solution is frustratingly stumbled upon by coincidence rather than deductive skill, and with a fiery dénouement which mimics the inevitable conclusion of Roger Corman’s sequence of Poe adaptations The Pale Blue Eye feels somewhat obvious and redundant, a frosty basilisk stare which takes too long to close.
The Pale Blue Eye is streaming on Netflix now