Misadapting Terror in The Pale Blue Eye

The Pale Blue Eye struggles to apply the caustic lyricism of Edgar Allan Poe to the conventions of a mystery thriller, which is more ironic considering that Poe invented the genre with The Murders of the Rue Morgue. Scott Cooper is nimbler with tragedy than with gothic intrigue and perverts his natural instinct for loss with a story that goes to Penny Dreadful extremes to stave off being typical. Despite pushing through the role of the crusty Augustus Landor with manly sureness, Christian Bale gets stopped up by the meaty twists like the rest of the film. Even surrounded by a gallery of supporting stars strong enough to pull off both the A and B strings of a Shakespeare theater troupe, the most squeamish listener from Poe’s time would have had no trouble hearing Cooper’s impression of his genre and going to bed on time with the candles out.

Against Bale, the film wields Harry Melling as an idea of Poe (“E.A. Poe, Edgar Poe,” he says with the tempo of a signature). He’s presented as though he could run away with the film with his flowery impressionism, but he never quite settles (his “I do declayah” East Coast accent has possibly never been spoken to this degree except by the overzealous DMs of murder mystery parties). His most intriguing dynamic is not with Bale but Lucy Boynton, with whom he has a revealing graveyard confession, in whispers and brittle-white backgrounds, that he speaks to his dead mother in his dreams and she reminds him a bit of her (she’s into it). He has cherry cordial eyes set unnervingly close together and an off-putting facial geometry in Masanobu Takayanagi’s candleglow world (he gave Spotlight its documentary sparseness). You feel for the fellow, but you also understand why he isn’t the most popular gent at the West Point Military Academy, to which Poe really did attend, though the facts stop there.

The film also enlists Timothy Spall, who reads everything with a wince beneath a cold nose, Toby Jones, Simon McBurney, and Robert Duvall, who intermittently plays a seated demonologist ranting about Christian blood and witches’ brews with the tone of a barstool conversation about golf scores. The film dips from over- to under-acting, as though the actors couldn’t personalize the script without inflecting it. Even Bale, who now frequently grows wild mustaches and wears out his eyes like he’s preparing to fight a bear, seems to struggle to add personality to lines with only the sound of it. Boynton is no exception to the cast’s tendency to overemote their subtext, but maybe by virtue of having fewer lines, she seems better able to pull it off as period-specific glamor. Charlotte Gainsbourg appears for 35 seconds as a tavern wench nestled in the crook under Bale’s chin; it would be a comparable tragedy to buy A5 Wagyu filet and chop it into chili. Gillian Anderson as the wife of the enigmatic doctor (played by Jones) spends her whole few minutes on screen frayed by the cold, all couped up in her clothes. She’s been done up like a starchy porcelain doll, complete with little heart-shaped lips. No idea of her role ever materializes. Cooper only got the default out of all of them.

The question of the whole film’s believability almost disappears for an hour by virtue of the middle act's competent mystery beats. Landor, withholding secrets about his daughter’s disappearance with aggressive significance, is called to West Point to investigate the hanging of a cadet whose corpse was relieved of his heart. Some 60 years before Jack the Ripper, the story would be chilling if true, but it’s really a vessel for a half-cocked buddy thriller between Bale and Melling. The wide-eyed Poe (he lets out a squeal of Christmastime delight when in the presence of a bookshelf) plays off his detective mentor with the confidence of a pinball. Their dynamic is not quite believable (though the script has a “reason” for that), but as they lock eyes across candles in evenly-framed tavern conversations, or on chilly stoops under the proud statuary of the academy, there’s some breathy intrigue going on. They quest after each other’s souls, state their intentions to do so, and gnaw on their conditions. By virtue of the costumes and the underlit rooms, the film nearly carries off the game and makes you forget that it ever has to “reveal” anything.

But the conditions of its genre, which Cooper interprets far too literally, play the film’s good points for a fool as the script seeks every opportunity for cheap subversion as soon as the third act rolls in like an unwanted fog. Nothing organic or meaningful is left to resolve once “that” twist happens, and Cooper has the casually misguided courage to make it happen twice. After the first time, the film grinds down to the level of emotions that only exist in 21st-century horror television, warping the dynamics into ungainly resolutions that negate the audience's investment in them. Yet even then, the second final twist just drops it all in flashbacks, unraveling the whole mysterious tapestry and reducing even adequate points of drama to pointlessness. Cooper tries to pass it off as a favor of sophistication to a hungry audience, as Holmes lays it all out for Watson. But not even the first reader of the first thriller would be impressed by retroacting interesting things for resolved ones. They’d wonder what this newfangled genre was even invented for.

It's not without its highlights, including Melling/Boynton in the graveyard, with a sharpened whisper, and Bale facing down his demons (in one heart-wobbling scene, sobbing into the dress of his missing daughter). Bale has grown up into a face that works better by firelight than office light, and for all his excess he remains incapable of acting the part of a man who doesn’t believe in a role. But The Pale Blue Eye, like 2017’s The Man Who Invented Christmas, enlists these strong personalities into a world too closely matched to its subject’s imagination, cheapening both. In every closet and field, characters and creatures lay in wait to predict figures in Poe’s poems, including maidens on seaside cliffs, Landor in his cabin, and a strategically placed Raven. Cooper stopped short of having it flutter by and squawk “nevermore” to a day-dreaming Poe, but the film gives the impression that he probably wanted to.

Watching the film’s wheels turn as it tries to conjure up a conclusion “eventful” enough to justify its buildup robs the viewer of the faith in details that any great thriller uses to sustain interest. It acts the part of trailblazing subversion but feels more like the broomdog in Alice in Wonderland, sweeping both in front and behind itself. Though Takayanagi shoots everything with appropriately subdued glamor, The Pale Blue Eye never stirs, surprises, or scares anything out of you. Every member of the cast has been in something else by themselves that boiled more blood than this. The movie doesn’t overstay and won’t stand out on Netflix as being particularly offensive as some uneventful afternoon viewing with a side of hot cocoa. But it can’t claim any part of the Poe lineage, which never, not for one line, was so desperate to resolve “climactically” at the expense of its heart. When he created this genre, he was already ahead of Cooper’s idea of it.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Netflix/Cross Creek Pictures

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