It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of Scott Cooper as a filmmaker, accompanied at each turn by Christian Bale. Cooper established himself as a director of gritty human dramas with Out of the Furnace, which he parlayed successfully with the brutal, thrilling historical epic Hostiles. But lately, Cooper has made a turn to horror, and while Bale was not around for the grisly, misconceived Antlers, he’s back for The Pale Blue Eye, a Poe-esque murder mystery that features, well, Edgar Allan Poe himself.
Set in 1830, the film stars Bale as detective Augustus Landor, who reluctantly accepts a case at West Point to investigate a series of murders at the update New York military academy. But there’s something more personal to these crimes, as the bodies of the cadets have been mutilated. Joining Poe is young officer and future poet Edgar Allan Poe, played with a performative twitch by Harry Melling. Their investigation uncovers a larger conspiracy with elements of the occult, stretching up to those highest in rank. Landor, a misfit with a tragic past, faces more than his share of obstacles from those in power, but it’s hard to see if these people have something to hide, or if it’s the institution itself that Landor should have his sights set against.
Cooper’s transition into a horror filmmaker hasn’t been a smooth one. Antlers failed to properly mix horror with folk legend as other films, like The Witch, have done masterfully. With The Pale Blue Eye, Cooper dutifully follows the gothic playbook: shadowy corners, hazy, desolate nights. You half expect the headless horseman from Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow to come galloping from out of the murkiness. But Cooper is better the closer he sticks to a grounded narrative. He’s more comfortable now than with his previous effort in this genre, which was too far into the supernatural.
Bale and Melling are far and away more compelling than the plodding procedural, which becomes less convincing as the film rolls along. With his scruffy beard and hollow eyes, Bale’s Landor is a tragic, cynical man with an aversion to authority and powerful institutions. It’s a solid, if somewhat reserved performance by Bale. It’s Melling who is the more entertaining of the two. His Poe is a shifty little twerp, but one that you sense could be seriously twisted in the head. He adds a bit of fun to a film that is full of strong performers, such as Lucy Boynton, Gillian Anderson, Toby Jones, and Timothy Spall, who get lost in the film’s gloom. The Pale Blue Eye remains an effective gothic horror, bolstered by the addition of Poe and the militaristic setting, but I’d be lying if I said this was the genre best suited to Cooper’s skills.
The Pale Blue Eye opens in select theaters on December 23rd, before streaming to Netflix on January 6th 2023.