Great things happen when a director can set a mood and carry it successfully throughout a film. Director Scott Cooper’s The Pale Blue Eye is a mystery that’s more about its grim and grisly tone than originality. And Cooper creates an atmosphere of intrigue that resonates throughout the eerie story. The film is based on Louis Bayard’s 2003 novel, The Pale Blue Eye, and Christian Bale leads a strong ensemble cast. Cooper’s telling surprises with twists and teasingly tantalizes mystery lovers.
Bale masters his craft and can morph into some extremely interesting characters. In The Pale Blue Eye, he plays a veteran New York detective, Augustus Landor, living by himself in the woods, who comes out of retirement to investigate the gruesome death of a cadet at the United States Military Academy. Still mourning his daughter’s loss (potentially a runaway), Landor throws himself into the task. Landor teams up with a young cadet named Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling), who tells Landor that the killer must be a poet because the victim’s heart was removed, Poe states “The heart is a symbol, or it is nothing. To remove a man’s heart is to traffic in symbol. And who better equipped for such labor than a poet?” Together they hunt the killer, and suspects abound. Then more bodies appear.
Cooper’s dreary, dismal setting and camera work evoke sinisterness and mystery. There is very little joy in the storyline, and characters slide in and out of darkness and light, adding to the suspense and thrill of the hunt. Bale most often works at playing standoffish or off-the-wall characters, so it’s refreshing to see warmth toward somebody else on the screen. Melling plays Poe with sincerity and an air of innocence. Their father-son dynamic dominates, powers the plot, and smoothly sets up several instrumental moments in the film’s surprising climax. Yes, there are other characters, and they too are key, but Bale and Melling’s efforts that chinch the story’s plausibility and drive the discoveries and suspense. Still, it is interesting to point out that the cast is stacked – Timothy Spall plays the head of West Point; Toby Jones plays the school doctor; Gillian Anderson plays the doctor’s emotionally fragile wife; Charlotte Gainsbourg plays a barmaid, and Robert Duvall (the solo American cast member) plays a professor of the occult.
The Pale Blue Eye has a slow-burn subtly to it – standard – hidden notes, clue-filled diaries, suspicious characters, red herrings – all basic who-done-it elements, and still, the cast and Cooper’s direction catch and hold the audience – dying to know who the guilty party is. In the noted genre, the story is a textbook mystery. Still, in Cooper’s hands, the end result is an intriguing exploration of grief, family secrets, relationships, and the drive to find a killer. I am placing four stars up top; if I could add a ½ star, I would.