The Pale Blue Eye

The Pale Blue Eye (2022)

The Pale Blue Eye first published by Little White Lies

You wait ages for one fictionalised detective story featuring Edgar Allan Poe during his cadetship years at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, and then two come along. Yet where Christopher Hatton’s Raven’s Hollow (2022) was so deeply engaged with the supernatural that it felt like something out of the Brothers Grimm (or perhaps Washington Irving), Scott Cooper’s The Pale Blue Eye is rooted in the rational (even if some of its characters dabble in Satanic ritual, and Poe himself claims as evidence messages sent to him in his dreams by his dear departed mother). Of course, both films are peppered with ravens, tell-tale hearts, gloomy cemeteries, references to Lenore, and other prefigurations (including the detective format itself) of Poe’s later writings, as if we were witnessing the making of the man, or at least a reimagining of his formative experiences and inspirations. 

Adapted from Louis Bayard’s 2006 novel of the same name, The Pale Blue Eye takes place in and around the Academy itself, after the body of a Cadet has been found hanging from a tree, and the corpse subsequently desecrated, with the heart carved from its chest. This leads Colonel Sawyer (Timothy Spall) and his second-in-command Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) to turn for help to widowed police officer Augustus Landor (Christian Bale, also in Cooper’s Out of the Furnace and Hostiles), who lives locally and has a reputation for solving difficult cases. Haunted by the disappearance of his beloved daughter Maddie, Landor is a bitter, broken man who has turned his back on God – but he nonetheless agrees to conduct a discreet investigation, and quickly determines that the death was not a suicide but a murder. 

Augustus Landor (Christian Bale), detective avant la lettre

Soon Landor partners up with Cadet Poe (Harry Melling), an eccentric misfit in this environment but also clearly a man of significant talents, and the older and younger man, like William and Adso in The Name of the Rose, set about finding the killer together even as more bodies, both animal and human, are found with their hearts and other parts missing. Landor and Poe are drawn to the Academy’s doctor Marquis (Toby Jones), his neurotic wife Julia (Gillian Anderson), their Cadet son Artemis (Harry Lawtey) and sickly daughter Leah (Lucy Boynton) – a cultured if dysfunctional clan who may somehow be connected to all the occult killings – even as the evidence starts pointing towards Poe himself.

The Pale Blue Eye is all at once a melancholic romance, a revenger’s tragedy, and an intriguing mystery. Its one problem, though, is that it comes with a glacial pace to match its wintry setting. By the time the main plot has reached something like a conclusion and been officially wrapped up, the film lurches on into a lengthy coda which recasts the film’s events in a rather different light – and while this second solution is ingenious and satisfying and packs a real emotional punch, its impact is undermined by coming so late in a film that has already felt on the long side.  

strap: Cooper Scott’s glacial, gothic murder mystery rewrites the history and Poe-tics of detective fiction

Anton Bitel