Is the Third Collaboration Between Christian Bale and Writer-Director Scott Cooper a Hit or a Miss?
Sometimes a director and an actor simply click. Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro. Spike Lee and Denzel Washington. Bong Joon Ho and Song Kang-ho. The Pale Blue Eye, a new historical thriller arriving January 6th on Netflix, marks the third collaboration between Christian Bale and writer-director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart). Their first film together was Out of the Furnace (2013), a rural crime thriller with Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson. They followed it up with the excellent 2017 western Hostiles.
This film opens in 1830 as Augustus Landor arrives at the West Point military academy to investigate a mysterious death. A young cadet has been found hanged. Did he take his own life after succumbing to the stress and pressures of academy training? At first glance, it seems like a rational explanation, but there’s one small flaw in this obvious solution: the cadet’s heart has been removed from his chest.
This intriguing premise is more than enough to carry a two-hour mystery especially with Bale present to carry the dramatic weight of the narrative. Instead, Cooper adds a second “hook” to his premise. In 1830, there was a cadet in attendance at West Point who would later become a literary giant. It was none other than Mr. Edgar Allen Poe. Cooper isn’t taking liberties with history. Poe was indeed enrolled in the military academy at that time. The writer-director has set his film at this specific time and in this specific place to ask a dramatic question: What if Cadet E.A. Poe, the future father of detective fiction, were enlisted to solve a homicide and met his romantic inspiration and muse along the way?
Harry Melling (Dudley Dursley of the Harry Potter films) plays Poe as a young eccentric who is far more interested in discussing poetry than military tactics. He’s bullied by the alpha males populating the corridors of West Point and is instantly drawn to the investigator charged with solving the crime. The two men form an unlikely partnership, and your enjoyment of the film will hinge on just how unlikely you find that alliance to be.
Melling’s portrayal of this fictional Poe works best when he keeps things small. When the physical tics and the strange accent overtake his performance, Poe feels less eccentric and more deranged. Poe’s occasional wild-eyed rant would likely make him a prime suspect rather than a candidate to serve as the investigator’s assistant. Perhaps eccentricity feels more natural on an older performer. It may simply be Melling’s youthful face that causes moments in his performance to ring false.
It doesn’t help that the film is overstuffed with Poe imagery and coincidences. One establishing shot lingers on a raven cawing on a tree branch. Poe is smitten with the physician’s daughter, Lea. If you’re wondering if she’s the inspiration for his poetic love Lenore, he reads her a portion of a poem to confirm she is. These moments are a bit less clunky than they sound, but they could have been omitted altogether. The audience can connect these thematic dots themselves. Perhaps Cooper was concerned that modern audiences wouldn’t even know who Edgar Allen Poe is, so he built an American literature tutorial into the narrative.
Christian Bale is at his minimalist best in The Pale Blue Eye. There is no better actor to play a “world-weary detective”. Bale is the embodiment of an aging Byronic hero, a man weighed down by melancholy who wanders the world searching for meaning. It’s no coincidence that Bale’s character is named Landor, an anagram of Roland, the hero of Lord Byron’s epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgramage. In case you miss this literary reference, Poe finds a book of Byron’s poetry in Landor’s bookcase. It’s a not-so-subtle elbow in your literary ribs. The detective waves it away as belonging to his estranged daughter, but the work of Byron is the subtext for the film.
The word “childe” in old English referred to someone who had not yet been granted his knighthood, a master-less samurai of sorts. In the opening moments of the film, we learn that Landor is not affiliated with any law enforcement agency. He is under contract with West Point as a consultant, a freelance expert hired to explain the mysterious events on campus. He has no roots. His only loyalty is to the truth, however inconvenient that truth might prove to be.
The ensemble cast is a Who’s Who of legendary character actors from Toby Jones (Berberian Sound Studio) as the academy physician to Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner) as the commanding officer of West Point who’s fighting to keep his fledgling military academy from being shuttered due to the controversial death on campus. Even Robert Duvall makes an appearance at age 91 as an academic consulted by Gus Landor to shed light on the occult overtones to the murder.
Many critics (including myself) have praised Netflix for funding mid-budget films aimed at adults, the kind of movies that filled theaters in the 1990’s and have mostly disappeared from modern multiplexes. I spent many a Friday night at the theater during that decade, watching forgettable, yet entertaining, thrillers. The Pale Blue Eye attempts to save film lovers from the January doldrums that set in after the high tide of fall awards season releases. We’re in the calm before the blockbuster storm. The Pale Blue Eye is far from perfect, but it’s still worth a watch if you’re a fan of crime procedurals. It’ll pass the time pleasantly enough until something better comes along.