West Point, New York, 1830: A young cadet is found hanging from a tree. At first, his death is considered a suicide. That is, until someone breaks into the morgue overnight and carves his heart from his chest. Thus begins Scott Cooper’s The Pale Blue Eye, a grim and gothic journey into pre-Civil War America, a time when the country struggled to discard its European cloak whilst searching for its own identity. It was an unsettled period that sparked the imagination of America’s foremost poet of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe. With a classical and serious gaze, Cooper utilizes Poe’s legacy and dark persona to unspool a mystery that’s both enthralling and saturated with bleak romance.
Based on the novel by Louis Bayard, the story takes place in the dead of winter, where every building is encrusted with snow and the woods possess a cold and empty resonance. After discovering the victim, the academy’s patrician leaders, Superintendent Thayer (Timothy Spall) and Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) hire Augustus Landor (Christian Bale in a pensive and internal performance), a detective who struggles with booze and the mysterious loss of his daughter. With a stringy beard and ravaged top hat, Landor’s life consists of sitting in his empty house or taking solitary walks in the forest until it’s time to grab a drink at the local tavern where he finds occasional comfort with the barmaid (Charlotte Gainsbourg). If he wasn’t tasked with this investigation, he’d probably disappear into the ether.
Landor starts by interrogating the victim’s fellow cadets, a small cadre of militant students who seem bound by a secret code. He also engages in lengthy and frustrating debates with the lumbering coroner, Dr. Marquis (Toby Jones). Slowly reaching an impasse, Landor investigates less and imbibes more when inspiration strikes. Enter the awkward but intensely erudite cadet, Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling). Brooding, sincere, and unexpectedly comedic, Melling’s Poe is like the introverted goth kid in high school, albeit a scholarly one that’s versed in the classics. At the drop of a hat, he’ll recite French poetry or hash over his fascination with death. One night, Poe approaches the soused detective at the tavern and offers his take on the crime: “The murderer is a poet!” Impressed with the young cadet’s peculiar energy and aptitude, Landry takes him on as an aid in the investigation.
Poe infiltrates the coterie of cadets who were supposedly friends with the victim. There, he meets Cadet Artemus Marquis (Harry Lawtey) and his beautiful sister, Lea Marquis (Lucy Boynton), who Poe quickly falls for. As he uncovers some dark truths about this secret circle, which resembles Yale’s Skull and Bones society, and the Marquis family in general, which includes their sinister mother played by a ghoulish Gillian Anderson, the murders start ratcheting up.
In a story that could’ve drowned in stylistic sludge due to its whimsical setting (think of Tim Burton’s forgettable Sleepy Hollow, which pandered to its histrionic imagery instead of the story and characters), Cooper approaches the script, which he wrote, with an austerity that’s refreshing. Although Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography is beyond gorgeous with its cold, leaden landscapes and drippy, dreggy interiors, Cooper never gets drunk on the visuals. Instead, he focuses on the quirks and eccentricities of his characters. The director’s third collaboration with Bale also sustains an undercurrent of suspense and dread, save a few hiccups towards the end. Other than Howard Shore’s score, which tends to overwhelm the narrative at times, the movie has a quiet tone. Poe’s legend still burns bright in goth hipsterdom, and some viewers might be disappointed with the director’s lack of ostentation in this take on his youth. If you’re looking for a cartoonish Wednesday Addams-style portrayal you came to the wrong haunted house. Cooper is not for cynics. Like Poe, he doesn’t fit into a contemporary overly-sardonic zeitgeist.
As a filmmaker who wears his heavy ’70s drama influences on his sleeve, Cooper has managed to exist under the radar of popularity for quite a few years now. From his first movie, Crazy Heart, which earned Jeff Bridges an Academy Award, to his latest, it’s clear he’s fascinated with problematic characters who harbor destructive secrets and pasts. He’s explored similar themes in genres such as crime (Black Mass), drama (the underrated Out of the Furnace), westerns (Hostiles), and terror with 2021’s Antlers. Unfortunately, a few of these films suffered from improbable story arcs and gaping plot holes. This one is no exception. There’s a moment when the movie takes a hard left turn into silly phantasmagoria, which doesn’t fit with the rest of its secular tone. Thankfully, it recovers from this “magical” sequence, and we’re gifted with an inspired twist.
Story issues aside, Cooper’s talent lies in deconstructing ambiguous protagonists and Poe most certainly qualifies. He’s both rash and sensitive, creative but self-destructive, and by the end of the movie, we worry about young Poe and his imminent travails with opium and misery. In many ways, he’s the perfect candidate for these tenebrous tendencies. In The Pale Blue Eye, the friendship between a budding poet fascinated by darkness and a broken-down detective who lives in it, he’s able to shine a light in those cracks of the human armor. It’s a dark, lurid, and weird place where this unexpected gem exists, at times, quite comfortably.