“The Pale Blue Eye” is one movie title that’s evocative but admirably ambiguous — it makes the movie feel like a Western based on a Lou Reed song. In fact, the film is based on Louis Bayard’s 2006 novel, which uses a 1830s military setting and a murder mystery to frame a sort of Edgar Allan Poe origin story. At West Point, which at the beginning of the nineteenth century was a fort in the woods overlooking the Hudson River, a student suffers a violent death. He was cut from a rope hanging from a tree branch (his feet were touching the ground), but it’s what happens after his death that matters: someone made a vertical incision in his chest and removed his heart.
Christian Bale stars as Augustus Landor, an eccentric haunted detective who’s brought in by a West Point brass to solve the crime. But as written and directed by Scott Cooper (“Hostiles,” “Crazy Heart”), this is really a tale of two men – a stern, restrained, slow-moving buddy movie. Early in his investigation, Landor Cadet Fourth Class E.A. meets Poe, who has a penchant for a statement Things that coincide with what he has. There are many photos and paintings of Edgar Allen Poe, and Harry Melling, the veteran of the “Harry Potter” films who plays him, match it in an uncanny way. He is small, with a square pale face framed by tightly parted hair and eyes so burning with intelligence that they appear to be slightly crossed.
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His speech, however, is meant to be reassuring. Poe was orphaned at an early age, grew up in a troubled foster home in Richmond, Virginia, and in “The Pale Blue Eye” speaks with the stylized style of an elegant Southern gentleman. A maniac who styles himself an aesthetic aristocrat, he establishes his crime-solver credentials in early America—a sort of Benoit Blanc in training—when he tells Landor that whoever killed the apprentice and cut out his heart was a poet. . The heart, you see, is a symbol. (It was definitely Labo). Removing it from the body is a representation the meaning.
Landor and Poe both love to drink, and this is about poetry, too—about their need to motivate themselves to see beyond everyday life. Now, though, you might wish the film did more than take the killing tropes that would be routine in a modern setting and drop them into a hard-hitting winter landscape of “literary” Americana. I’ve seen a serial killer movie that was as captivating as From Hell (2001), a Jack the Ripper drama by the Hughes brothers, starring Johnny Depp as a London detective with hallucinatory visions (absinthe is preferred); He is a character very similar to Melling’s Poe. But “From Hell,” though a movie few remember, had energy and intrigue and unleashed a diabolical, staccato charge. Pale Blue Eye wants to enter the darkness of the nineteenth century, but it is stiflingly gloomy and static. The film presents two detectives in an ostensibly mysterious way as a seven-collar high-dance, but for most of the movie we’re one step ahead of them. (Thriller stories are rarely mystified, and this solution shocked me early on.)
There are mysterious rituals dripping with blood! There are flamboyant officers played by the likes of Timothy Spall. And there’s Leah (Lucy Boynton), the pink sister of a cadet who later comes under suspicion. Bo is drawn to her, but in matters of the heart – or at least the untouched ones – he proves somewhat ineffective. It’s like a well-mannered mad scientist swooping around Landour as a sidekick, and despite the bleak atmosphere, there’s little here that fuels our fascination with Poe and his macabre charm.
It’s Belle, recessed behind a bushy-groomed beard, and she stays in the middle. His Landor is a rogue baptized in loss – a widower, with a daughter who also died. His misery comes to light in solving the crime, as each detective learns who the other really is. However, by then, whatever attraction they had previously offered had long since turned into indifference.
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