Edgar Allen Poe, the early 19th century author of twisted stories like The Fall Of The House Of Usher and The Pit And The Pendulum, has long fascinated modern-day authors and filmmakers. Perhaps it’s because he died aged 40 in strange circumstances, his last few days as fiendish a mystery as any he conjured up. Or simply that he is credited as the father of the detective story, long before Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie ever set pen to paper.
In The Pale Blue Eye, director Scott Cooper’s stately take on Louis Bayard’s 2003 novel, Poe appears as a young cadet at West Point, the famed US military academy in the Hudson Valley. The year is 1830, and a fellow attendee has been found hanged. Even more disturbing, the corpse has been violated in the hospital ward – the heart carved from the chest. The academy’s superintendent (Timothy Spall) wants this grisly crime solved, quickly and discreetly.
Enter Augustus Landor, a veteran sleuth played by Christian Bale, who is charged with investigating the murder. More weird goings-on unfold, as farm animals are similarly mutilated. And those Landor meets proffer odd pronouncements: “Man will do almost anything to cheat death,” mutters Charlotte Gainsbourg’s barkeep. It’s in her tavern that Landor encounters Poe, played with eccentric brilliance by one-time Harry Potter alumni Harry Melling, who these days is turning into a very fine character actor (see Coen Brothers gem The Ballad Of Busters Scruggs).
All in The Pale Blue Eye is fictional, except for Poe’s attending of West Point when he was 21. Melling’s Poe is the man before he became the writer, although the seeds are already planted for one who revels in the macabre. He cryptically tells Landor that the culprit is a “poet” – presumably because cutting out an organ like the heart has some symbolic value. He’s also partial to a drink or two, which just so happens to be Landor’s weakness (he’s told to conduct his investigation without consuming alcohol – the worst dry January you can think of).
Backed by Netflix, and landing on its platform this Friday (January 6), The Pale Blue Eye seems like a curious movie for the streamer. It moves slower than a snoozy snail, which may put those aching to fiddle with their phones or the remote control off. But stick with it: it’s a rich and rewarding ride, especially for those who get their kicks from stories that dip into the occult. Like a proto-Angel Heart, this gloomy tale mingles with Satanic darkness.
Suitably, it’s also filled with eccentric supporting characters. Like the legendary Robert Duvall (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now), here playing a scholarly expert in symbols. Or Gillian Anderson, the one-time X-Files star cast as a shrill upper-crust society wife, and Bohemian Rhapsody’s Lucy Boynton as her ailing daughter. Cooper, who previously made Hostiles and Out of the Furnace with Bale, sets them adrift in a frozen, fog-shrouded landscape that will chill you as much as these crimes. It’s not a film for everyone, especially if you’re craving fast-moving action. But for Poe fans, it’s a grisly treat.
- Director: Scott Cooper
- Starring: Christian Bale, Lucy Boynton, Harry Melling
- Release date: January 6 (Netflix)