It’s been brought to my attention that Edgar Allen Poe was born January 19th of 1809. I realize this review is a day or two late for his birthday, but it nonetheless seems like an appropriate time to review The Pale Blue Eye.
We lay our scene in 1830, back when the venerable US Military Academy at West Point was still new. The plot begins when Cadet Leroy Fry (Steven Maier) is found murdered and his body horribly mutilated. What’s worse, the administrators are so insufferably proud and overprotective of the academy’s reputation that they have to investigate this matter discretely, meaning they can’t go with this to any legitimate law enforcement. (I need hardly add that the FBI wouldn’t be instituted for another 70 years.)
Enter Augustus Landor (Christian Bale), a detective with a long and distinguished career up until his wife passed away and his daughter (Mattie, played by Hadley Robinson) disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Landor retired to drown himself in drink a couple years ago, up until West Point commissions him to investigate what becomes a series of grisly murders. Along the way, Landor catches the attention of one Cadet Edgar A. Poe (here immortalized by Harry Melling), who proves himself to be an astute and invaluable sidekick.
Elsewhere in the cast, we’ve got Timothy Spall as Colonel Thayer, superintendent of West Point. Though Landor primarily liaises with Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney), Thayer’s right hand man. Charlotte Gainsbourg makes a welcome appearance as Patsy, the trusted local barmaid who occasionally gets called over to warm Landor’s bed. There’s also Robert Duvall in a brief yet memorable supporting turn as an expert on the occult. (Yes, you heard me.)
Then we have the Marquis family, who comprises the bulk of the supporting cast. Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones) is the resident physician at West Point, thus he’s the closest thing this murder mystery has to a medical examiner. I might add that his son (Cadet Artemus Marquis, played by Harry Lawtey) is enrolled in the Academy and serves as the resident bully. We’ve also got the doctor’s daughter (Lea, played by Lucy Boynton), an especially tragic case of epilepsy who’s quickly established as a love interest for Poe, much to the jealous rage of his fellow cadets. Last but not least is Mrs. Julia Marquis (Gillian Anderson, of all people), playing the doctor’s wife with a genteel facade over 50 megatons of weapons-grade crazy.
It’s the cast that really makes this movie worth watching. Even the lesser roles are populated by such incredible actors as Charlotte Gainsbourg and Robert Duvall, more than capable of leaving an impression with very little screen time. Boynton delivers a nicely dynamic performance, Jones is more than capable of playing his role with all the requisite nuance, and Christian Bale is working wonders from solidly within his wheelhouse.
But of course the main draw here is Harry Melling in the iconic role of Edgar Allen Poe. This performance is absolutely captivating. The highest compliment I can pay Melling is that his depiction of Poe is a weirdo who doesn’t look like he’s trying to be a weirdo. He’s not into the macabre to try and be all counter-culture, and he doesn’t talk in that high-pitched southern drawl to try and be unique. This is just who he is, and he’s doomed to be a quirky little misfit because he can’t pretend to be anything else.
At one point in the movie, Poe says that if he (somehow) ever killed everyone at the Academy who had ever abused or ridiculed him, there would only be a handful of cadets left alive. That whole monologue paints him as a bully victim who’s made his peace with his status as a bully victim and he’s found his own ways of coping with that. And Melling fucking sells that. Masterful work.
(Side note: No, it isn’t lost on me that such a quirky little bully target is being played by the same actor who famously portrayed one of the most notorious pop culture bullies in recent memory. To say nothing of his more recent turns as powerful bullying assholes in The Old Guard, the TV adaptation of “His Dark Materials” and Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. Maybe all that experience on the other side added to his performance here, I dunno.)
The cast only has one real weak link, but it greatly pisses me off. After her superlative leading turn as a feminist force of nature in Moxie, Hadley Robinson was brought in to play a missing daughter who barely gets five minutes of runtime in the whole movie. A terrible, awful waste. Reprehensible.
This movie had me through most of the running time. The production design and camerawork were elegant, the performances were marvelous, the central Landor/Poe relationship was fascinating to watch, and the murder mystery element was nicely paced with its kills and clues. But then came the third act.
First of all, one of the main characters is a younger version of a man who would eventually grow into one of the most celebrated poets in American history. That is some god-tier plot armor right there. It sucks so much tension out of the film, knowing that Poe can’t possibly die or be seriously injured, and it wrecks the climax especially hard.
Which brings us to the big reveal. Because really, a murder mystery is only as good as its big reveal. And that’s where this one suffers, because the answer behind all the murders is sadly uninspired. More importantly, it doesn’t do nearly enough to dovetail all the potential themes about fathers and daughters, individuality versus conformity, the conflict of Christianity versus devil worship, and so on. Yes, there’s a whole “black magic” subplot running through this whole movie and it all amounts to a wet fart with that big climactic reveal.
But then the film throws us another last-minute curveball: A rape subplot. (CONTENT WARNING.)
Yes, we have a female character in this movie who exists for literally no other purpose than to be brutally raped. And this horrible traumatic assault happens solely as a motivation for a male lead character. No getting around it, folks — we’ve got ourselves a textbook example of fridging.
Sorry, no. I’m not having that. No es bueno. Instant dealbreaker. Good night and fuck off.
Even without the use of that lazy sexist bullshit fridging trope, The Pale Blue Eye would still be a movie that fails to stick the landing. It’s a movie with deeply compelling setups and miserably lame payoffs, a film that brings up all these interesting themes but never ties them all together into a coherent statement. The performances are great throughout, but these same actors have turned in better work elsewhere.
…Okay, this is probably the best work of Harry Melling’s career, but he’s still really good in The Old Guard and that’s a vastly better movie on Netflix. And if you haven’t seen Hadley Robinson in Moxie yet, you need to get on Netflix and pull that up right fucking now.
This one is a hard pass, a terrible waste of time and talent for all involved. Better luck next time.