Sunday, February 5, 2023

The Pale Blue Eye (2022)

1830. A West Point cadet dies in what at first appears to be a suicide. Somebody breaking into the morgue the evening after to very literally steal the corpse’s heart does make the place’s leadership change their minds about that, though, and they call in a retired New Yorker policeman living in a cabin not too far away from the Academy. Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) is a gifted investigator, but he’s not too happy to be drawn into his old profession again. He lost his wife and later his daughter some years ago, and would really rather prefer to drink himself into a stupor and wallow in his grief; he’s not too keen on West Point as an institution either, for reasons that will become clear later. However, he is also fascinated by the case and its macabre circumstances, something that will only increase once further murders happen. Landor acquires a kind of assistant among the cadets in form of one Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling). Poe is an outsider among his peers thanks to his combination of romantic weirdness and intelligence as well as his predilection for poetry and the weird. He also has a brilliant mind made to solve puzzles and ciphers, which will stand everyone involved in good stead, especially once things take a turn into the occult.

Going by what I’ve heard, Scott Cooper’s historical mystery with a touch of the Gothic seems to be a bit of a marmite movie, with any given critic either bored to tears or really fascinated by the film and its general mood. I’m part of the latter group, but then, the former seems to believe this in many ways very traditional mystery with an occult bent – and some more modern touches for the last act – to be a procedural. Everyone watches a different movie, apparently.

Be that as it may, I’m not usually terribly font of mysteries that enrol a random famous person from history as a detective; often, because little in these persons’ works or life suggest any interest in these matters (sorry, Oscar Wilde). Poe, on the other hand makes a lot of sense in a detective role, as the father of the modern detective story as well as through his public fascination with puzzles and hoaxes. Cooper, providing his own script from a novel by Louis Bayard makes great use of this, as well as of Poe’s macabre and grotesque and romantic (in the traditional sense of the word) side.

Melling is a great as Poe as well, finding mannerisms and language that makes him feel eccentric and emotionally overblown in many regards, but never drift into caricature. Rather, this Poe is a complete human being, and it makes perfect sense that this version of Poe and Landor begin hitting it off like a strange father/son duo. That Bale’s great doing the very standard “detective haunted by the past” bit should come as no surprise. In fact, he’s so good at it that later developments that could strain belief make perfect sense.

Add to this the film’s wintry mood of rural, US gothic, the various occult shenanigans, and Cooper’s calm, un-showy but often quietly intelligent direction, and a cast so full of great actors (there are Timothy Spall, Toby Jones, Lucy Boynton and Gillian Anderson, for example) it can throw away someone like Charlotte Gainsbourg on a minor role, and you’ve pretty much made a film so centred around various of my favourite interests, I’m bound to love it.

As a matter of fact, The Pale Blue Eye does quite a bit more as well. This is very much a movie about how the failure of all figures of authority and respect at just doing their damn jobs and treating their communities with respect and fairness destroys first single members of these communities (in ways that can be lethal, spiritual, or mental) and then the community as a community, without most of these men of authority ever even understanding what is truly happening; one might think because they do not want to see it, though the film isn’t really telling.

Apart from that, there’s also a much more personal story here, about grief, justice, and the things that might come after, but getting further into this would lead us into unnecessary spoiler territory.

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