THE PALE BLUE EYE movie poster | ©2022 Netflix

THE PALE BLUE EYE movie poster | ©2022 Netflix

Rating: R
Stars: Christian Bale, Harry Melling, Gillian Anderson, Lucy Boynton, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Toby Jones, Harry Lawtrey, Simon McBurney, Hadley Robinson, Timothy Spall, Robert Duvall
Writer: Scott Cooper, based on the novel by Louis Bayard
Director: Scott Cooper
Distributor: Netflix
Release Date: December 23, 2022 (theatrical), January 6, 2023 (Netflix)

Sometimes, historical fiction writers like to pique reader/viewer interest by adding a real person to the mix. In the case of THE PALE BLUE EYE, that individual is Edgar Allan Poe, played here by Harry Melling. While he has a large and crucial supporting role, the unquestionable lead is Christian Bale’s character, Augustus Landor.

This much of THE PALE BLUE EYE conforms to reality: Poe did attend the U.S. Army’s West Point military academy, and he was writing poems by 1830, when the film takes place. As for the rest, it didn’t really need to be Poe, but the name is shorthand for what is required of his plot function.

We meet Landor as he is washing his hands in the waters of an icy river near his isolated cabin in the Hudson Valley. Landor is startled to find a contingent from the nearby U.S. Army West Point military academy waiting by his door.

Landor, as we learn from Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) on their way to West Point, is renowned as a detective and as a crime-stopper. As such, the command at West Point would very much like him to look into a death on the grounds. We also learn, also from Hitchcock, that Landor’s wife has died and his daughter vanished.

It seems that one of the West Point cadets has hanged himself. However, while his body was in the morgue, someone sneaked in, cut the heart from his corpse, and stole it. It doesn’t take too much imagination to suspect that the apparent suicide may have been murder.

While Landor is familiarizing himself with the deceased’s fellow cadets, one stands out to him: the erudite, observant, and poetry-loving E.A. Poe. Landor offers Poe the position of unpaid assistant in his investigation. Poe is delighted.

For a good while, THE PALE BLUE EYE plays like a chatty pilot episode for a period detective buddy comedy. Melling is very good as the intense Poe, Bale puts folksy authority into Landor, and the two have a pleasant chemistry with each other.

At the same time, Poe falls for the tempestuous, unwell daughter (Lucy Boynton) of the West Point’s chief doctor (Toby Jones). The romance plays into what we know of Poe’s susceptibilities, while not getting too overwrought.

But wait – there’s a section of THE PALE BLUE EYE that can’t stop itself from going bonkers. Director Scott Cooper, who adapted the screenplay from Louis Bayard’s novel, tries to set up the tonal shift earlier, engaging the estimable Robert Duvall in a small role to help sell it. But it’s not nearly enough, even when paired with the expectations Poe brings to the story.

Another layer follows this section. While we can appreciate the narrative construction, we aren’t given sufficient time to recover from the shift into gonzo, and the finale doesn’t resonate as it should.

THE PALE BLUE EYE winds up seeming like a thriller from another era, when wild swings of this sort were more common. It doesn’t say anything new about Poe, and it gets frankly goofy for a while, but it’s mostly diverting and comes to a pretty decent conclusion.

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