The first hour and a half of Scott Cooper’s The Pale Blue Eye is terrific. Gorgeously shot by ace cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, the film is a deliberately slow and riveting detective thriller, as we follow Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) taking Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling) under his nose to solve the murder of Leroy Fry (Steven Maier) whose hung body has his heart removed.
As with every detective thriller, there are many primary suspects. Is Cadet Randolph Ballinger (Fred Hechinger) responsible for Fry’s death, as there apparenly was some tension between the school’s cadets and Fry, closer to his murder. Or what about Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones) and his children, Artemus (Harry Lawtey) and Lea Marquis (Lucy Boynton)? Dr. Marquis has turned into dubious methods of medicine. Doesn’t that make him a suspect, when a man of science should always stay in rationality and pure science?
Those elements make up the most of The Pale Blue Eye‘s mystery, and it unravels itself brilliantly. Some may find it a bit slow, or stale, but it’s a standardly-conceived detective thriller with impeccable atmosphere and terrific performances across the board. Seriously, there isn’t a bad actor in its star-studed cast. Some have limited role, such as Robert Duvall and Charlotte Gainsbourg, but everyone is on their A-game.
Duvall is only in the film for two scenes, and yet makes up the most of his screentime delivering incredible bouts of exposition in a way that never sounds like exposition, but elements that move the needle of the plot forward. The only actor whose talents are pitifully wasted is Gainsbourg, whose minimal presence gives her little character development, and not much to do in the picture. Every other character, even with sparse screentime, seems to have a purpose in how the case unfolds, but Gainsbourg could’ve been completely cut out and Landor’s development would’ve stayed exactly the same.
However, both Christian Bale and Harry Melling steal the entire show away from everyone else. This is Bale’s third collaboration with Cooper, after Out of the Furnace and Hostiles, and he always seems to have a certain sense of ease with the filmmaker. His performance is the best he’s given in 2022, especially after starring in two duds (Thor: Love and Thunder and Amsterdam). He shares indelible chemistry with Melling, who completely bathes himself in Poe’s mannerisms and personality, a completely different role that he undertook when he portrayed Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter franchise.
The mystery in Pale Blue Eye unravels itself brilliantly
The technical elements of the film also work in its favor. Takayanagi’s cinematography is lush and creates a palpable sense of atmosphere that beautifully complements Howard Shore’s haunting compositions and well-paced editing from Dylan Tichenor. That atmosphere permeates throughout most of the case and culminates in a thrilling climax, where all is revealed in a fascinating way.
After that, you’d think the movie will be over soon. The case is closed, Landor and Poe have found the perpetrators of the film’s horrific killings, and everything will go back to normal. From that moment, the movie still has about half and hour to go, and it’s where the final “twist” gets revealed and derails the entire movie. I won’t spoil it, but it’s a massive red herring that comes out of nowhere and is completely unwarranted, especially with how the climax solves everything there is to be solved about the murders.
The film is based on the book of the same name by Louis Bayard, and while the twist may very well be in the novel, not everything needs to be adapted from it as well. If it didn’t work in the book, it won’t work in the film, and it absolutely doesn’t work. Cooper might’ve thought that, by overcomplicating a lean and straightforward case to solve, he would’ve brought more suspense and drama to the proceedings. But he almost tarnishes the entire experience, because everything that came before is now completely irrelevant by a “surprising twist.”
It’s only because of the strong technical craft and solid performances all around that The Pale Blue Eye is a must-see. Cooper’s skills as a filmmaker can’t be overstated, and even his weaker efforts are worth watching. Bale knows how to magnify the screen, and is joined by an impeccable Harry Melling giving the best performance of his career, alongside great supporting characters from the likes of Timothy Spall, Simon McBurney, Robert Duvall and Toby Jones. Do be warned that the final twist makes no sense, but other than that, you’re in for a compelling watch.
The Pale Blue Eye is now available to stream on Netflix.