There is a potentially intriguing mystery at its heart but the plodding The Pale Blue Eye ultimately doesn't make the most of its interesting setup.
Starring: Christian Bale, Harry Melling, Gillian Anderson, Lucy Boynton, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Toby Jones, Harry Lawtey, Simon McBurney, Timothy Spall, and Robert Duvall
Directed by: Scott Cooper
Tagline: Every heart tells a tale.
The Pale Blue Eye begins with a lot of promise. Its mystery, you get the sense, just might be as chilling as its atmosphere. A frosty New York winter reluctantly greets you as the film takes you to the 1830s where a ghastly crime has shaken West Point’s Military Academy. A cadet has been found dead, hanging from a tree, and, if that isn’t perturbing enough, his body has then been desecrated at the morgue. Someone has removed his heart, although no one can figure out the who and the why.
A retired veteran detective, Augustus Landor (Christian Bale), is brought in to solve the mystery. Dealing with demons of his own stemming from his familial past – primarily his wife dying and his daughter running off – he soon finds himself unravelling a thread that is knotted with jealousies, rifts, and even the occult.
An unexpected ally appears in the form of another cadet at the academy, one Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Melling), who expresses an interest in the investigation and then starts helping crack the case.
The Pale Blue Eye creates a fascinating atmosphere with its period drama meets gothic horror aesthetics, and the film has an interesting idea at its core in the shape of historical fiction (the movie is based on Louis Bayard’s 2003 novel) that imagines incidents that fuelled the darkness of a writer’s future works.
But this promising setup doesn’t quite deliver the kind of engrossing drama that you’d hope. The movie starts off with a crafty whodunnit that reels you in, but then kind of just plods along, unevenly going about its business, until it reaches what feels like its ending, only to then reveal a twist (that you may or may not find unconvincing) because why not.
The film doesn’t really sell the macabre elements of its tale or use Edgar Allan Poe’s presence to its full potential; if the whole conceit of your project is building a fictional account around a famous person, then that very character shouldn’t feel replaceable in the movie.
But even when the proceedings are faltering, the terrific performances by Bale and especially Melling – who brings both warmth and eeriness to his character – keep you invested.
All in all, the middling The Pale Blue Eye doesn’t generate strong feelings either way – it isn’t riveting, nor is it a mess. Its uneven pacing keeps the film from making the most of its intriguing setting, and the movie ultimately ends up being a mystery thriller that could have been significantly more thrilling.
Rating system: *Not on your life * ½ If you really must waste your time ** Hardly worth the bother ** ½ Okay for a slow afternoon only
*** Good enough for a look see *** ½ Recommended viewing **** Don’t miss it **** ½ Almost perfect ***** Perfection