The Pale Blue Eye: Poe-Faced, by David Bax
Here’s what’s frustrating, to you and me both, about what I’m about to do. I’m about to write a negative review of Scott Cooper‘s The Pale Blue Eye in which I mostly focus on the things that I do actually like about it. Annoying, right? Then you know how I feel. Once again, Cooper has shot himself in the foot because of his inability to loosen up even a little bit. For instance, what would be a cool historical detail in another director’s hands, like Christian Bale’s dirty, matted hat hair after his long, difficult carriage ride into town, instead comes off as another pretentious brushstroke that you should take seriously because it’s important. Which is, frankly, hilarious when you realize what the movie is about.
As with Cooper’s Hostiles, The Pale Blue Eye is photographed by Masanobu Takanayagi. He also shot Black Mass and Out of the Furnace but I single out the more recent collaboration because, like that western that also starred Bale, this movie is often strikingly beautiful to look at but too self-consciously grim to enjoy.
At first, it would seem that grimness is what’s called for. It’s 1830 and a young cadet at West Point has been murdered. A detective named Augustus Landor (Bale) has been enlisted to solve the crime. Pretty solemn stuff so far, right? But then Landor takes under his wing and employs as his assistant another West Point cadet, an enterprising and idiosyncratic young man named Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Melling). So this is actually a cheeky bit of historical fiction! There would certainly seem to be a sense of humor in the screenplay (by Cooper, adapted from Louis Bayard’s novel). While not directly based on any of the real Poe’s stories, references abound. A heart is removed. A raven looks on ominously.
So, instead of the dicey Native American mysticism of Cooper’s last film, Antlers, we’re dealing with a heaving dollop of the Old World occult. Ghosts may or may not be included. Unlike that previous movie, The Pale Blue Eye isn’t straight horror, exactly, but at times it is even more macabre. A lingering close-up of Landor prying open the rigid hands of a corpse, with accompanying sound effects, is strongly unsettling.
So we’ve got a high-concept murder mystery with grisly, watch-through-your-fingers moments and more than a few genre literature Easter eggs, all dressed up with perfectly textured costumes by Kasia Walicka Maimone, who is responsible for, among other things, 2014’s A Most Violent Year, one of the best-costumed movies of the last decade. Even despite some dumb, computer-generated fire (a recent scourge on cinema but that’s another article), there’s no reason this shouldn’t be fun.
It even almost is, at times. Here and there, the inherent silliness of it all manages to overpower Cooper’s quest for bleakness. But a terrible ending underlines the director’s insecure need to make his movies be about something. Choosing to land on notes of grief, guilt, revenge and unbearable pain is grossly self-serving. The movie spits at you for having dared to enjoy it. Well, consider me chastised.