The Pale Blue Eye

The Pale Blue Eye

2022, R, 128 min. Directed by Scott Cooper. Starring Christian Bale, Harry Melling, Gillian Anderson, Fred Hechinger, Lucy Boynton, Robert Duvall, Toby Jones, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Timothy Spall.

REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Dec. 23, 2022

Few filmmakers fascinate me as much as Scott Cooper. While I have a deep and abiding soft spot for Cooper as a director – Hostiles remains one of my favorite modern Westerns – his mid-career pivot to horror continues to be one of the more unexpected pivots of the decade. With Antlers under his belt and future projects like A Head Full of Ghosts keeping him in the genre, Cooper is stepping far away from the neo-Western that launched his career and into some truly uncharted territory.

The Pale Blue Eye, playing select theatres this week before a Jan. 6 Netflix debut, marks another step in that journey. In the film, Christian Bale plays a detective hired by West Point to investigate the death and mutilation of a cadet. Forced to team up with a young Edgar Allan Poe (played by Harry Melling – more on him in a moment), Bale’s Detective Landor soon uncovers an occult conspiracy that rises to the very top of the academy itself.

This is the third collaboration in an ongoing partnership between Cooper and Bale, and it proves once more to be a fruitful relationship. Just as in Out of the Furnace and Hostiles, Bale weaves a thread of gruff empathy into Cooper’s frontiersmen. The director’s body of work relies on a delicate balance between honor and darkness; here, Bale paints Landor as a faithless man moving through worlds – both religious and militaristic – belonging to the devout.

But the real star of the show is Melling as Poe. He’s having an absolute blast as the not-yet-world-famous writer; his Poe feels more caricature than man, but the gloomy little outsider Melling portrays onscreen adds a much-needed gothic flair to the bitter chill of Cooper’s direction. With Bale as a stolid straight man, a supporting cast of delightful character actors – from Toby Jones to Timothy Spall to the always underrated Lucy Boynton – make a play for onscreen supremacy. There’s not a weak performance in the bunch.

It’s easy to compare this film to Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow – that film is set in upstate New York and blends occult themes with mondo procedural elements. Despite struggling to balance folk and horror in 2021’s Antlers, Cooper appears to be more in his element here. The setting of the military academy gives the director an institution to undermine, and many of the film’s best scenes take place against the backdrop of scared boys dressing up as soldiers. Through the combination of location and production details, Cooper is also able to create a genuine iciness that permeates the entire film.

In fact, The Pale Blue Eye holds together remarkably as a gothic piece of horror … right up to the point that it doesn’t. The Pale Blue Eye seems to lose its nerve in its final minutes, when Cooper’s script reverts to a procedural story and reshuffles our relationships to both main characters, relying too heavily on red herrings – and ugly tropes of sexual violence – to bring the narrative home. Indeed, the entire film damn near falls apart. There’s still a lot to recommend in what is largely a charming little occult thriller, but Cooper still has a way to go before he can fully trust his instincts in horror.

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The Pale Blue Eye, Scott Cooper, Christian Bale, Harry Melling, Gillian Anderson, Fred Hechinger, Lucy Boynton, Robert Duvall, Toby Jones, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Timothy Spall

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