Long before Edgar Allan Poe became the acclaimed maestro of macabre horror, he served as a cadet at West Point Academy in Hudson Valley, New York. In 1830, as a young and bright 21-year-old, Poe enrolled in the academy, which he has often described with disdain due to the banality of routine. However, Poe’s sleuthing skills are something that is purely fictional, as seen in Scott Cooper’s latest Netflix release The Pale Blue Eye.
Adapted from Louis Bayard’s 2003 novel, the film stars Harry Melling as the wide-eyed, unsettling and mysterious poet who is a cadet at the academy when a string of mysterious murders take place, forcing him to be at the centre of attention. Christian Bale plays a jaded detective Augustus Landor who spends his time drinking in a cottage and recuperating from the tragic loss of his daughter, who has allegedly run away. When Landor is assigned the case, he quickly teams up with Poe, and the unlikely duo embarks on a tumultuous journey to get to the bottom of the mystery.
As superfluous poetic verses flow from Poe’s lips, the audience witnesses a series of bizarre murders that involve cadets being hung with their hearts removed. The duo also get involved with the uncanny Marquis family- the father is a surgeon and doctor at the academy, the mother is hysteric and sinister, the brother hides too many secrets and leads the “bad bunch”, while the sister is beautiful and the cynosure of all eyes at the academy. Poe, too, is enamoured by her and soon begins to pursue her romantically.
Things quickly go downhill when intentions overlap- a family tries to save their daughter from a mysterious illness, and a father seeks revenge for his daughter’s brutal gangrape. It is revealed that Landor is at the centre of the murders, and he has sought revenge on his daughter’s perpetrators. Grisly and gory, the film is, however, extremely moving.
Despite being a secondary character, Bale’s Landor has an overarching presence throughout the film. His quiet rage as a grieving father, coupled with his subtle care and affection for Poe, is amazing to watch. Melling is brilliant as Poe as he recites poetry with glassy eyes, reels under the tragic loss of his mother and tries to befriend a man; the look of betrayal on his face towards the end will stay with the audience long after the credits stop rolling.
The film has a brilliant ensemble cast that remains underused when compared to their potential. Charlotte Gainsborough is just a tavern woman who is Landor’s lover, Gillian Anderson as the hysteric, Mrs Marquis makes a brief appearance and reaches her peak when she shatters plates at the dinner table, Robert Duvall as the occult practitioner and more from a dream cast that remains pretty latent throughout the film, unfortunately.
Intriguing and wistful, The Pale Blue Eye, with its calculated cinematography and evocative performances, is perhaps the best January release on Netflix.