Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for The Pale Blue Eye.
If you are familiar with writer-director Scott Cooper’s work, then you know how it can be metaphorically—and literally—dark. With the exception of his directorial debut with the music-infused romance Crazy Heart (which still deals with heavy topics like addiction), Cooper’s impressive filmography often lingers in the more ominous elements that life has to offer. His 2015 film Black Mass about the true story of infamous Bostonian criminal Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) didn’t pull back any punches, and his recent allegorical horror picture Antlers starring Keri Russell and Jesse Plemons about a young boy haunted by a wendigo spirit and a traumatic home life blended the supernatural with the psychological. Cooper’s latest film The Pale Blue Eye starring his frequent collaborator Christian Bale and Harry Melling about an 1800s murder mystery is not unlike his previous work in that it is daring and a bit dismal. But it’s also surprisingly delightful?
The Premise of ‘The Pale Blue Eye’
Now “delightful” isn’t a word you’d necessarily use to describe a grisly murder tale like this one. Adapted from Louis Bayard’s 2003 novel of the same name, The Pale Blue Eye follows Augustus Landor (Christian Bale), a talented but tired detective who is hired by the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York to get to the bottom of a series of seemingly random murders of some of the cadets. The potential witnesses to the crimes, however, are quite tight-lipped and fear speaking out of turn, and thus Augustus can’t get very far in the case. That is, until he meets one cadet unlike the rest who’s eager to solve the mystery. That cadet is Edgar Allan Poe (yes, that Edgar Allan Poe), who is played with fervor by Harry Melling.
This unprovoked visit from Poe not only injects energy into the ho-hum lead detective, but into the overall film itself. In addition to The Pale Blue Eye being a story about death and disappearance, the period mystery leans heavily into the bleak and gloomy aesthetic of the wintery Hudson Valley, which, while effective for creating the mood that is essential for this sort of plot to thrive, can be almost too much for the audience to endure. It’s easy to assume that the inclusion of Poe would greatly contribute to The Pale Blue Eye’s brooding, enigmatic atmosphere. What else would you expect from someone who has “The Black Cat,” “The Raven,” and “The Masque of the Red Death” among their writing credits? As Scott Cooper explained in an interview with Collider, people have a very entrenched idea of who Poe was purely based on his many macabre poems and short stories that have (rightfully) earned him literary legend status. This begs the question: should our work define us?
Melling’s Whimsical Rendition of Poe in ‘The Pale Blue Eye’
Cooper explained, “This is really an Edgar Allan Poe origin story, so you have to have the themes that ultimately influence this young, unformed writer to become the writer he became,” adding, “this is about who he was before. So it was really about understanding Harry’s tone.” Melling’s excellent performance puts a spin on the famous figure that not many saw coming. Rather than adding to the very bleak film by running with the ideas we’ve conjured up of Poe from his works, Melling goes in an entirely unexpected direction, depicting Poe as someone who is filled with an almost childlike curiosity and exuberance for life. In this portrayal, he is happy, whimsical, and witty, cracking jokes and capping off his theatrically-spoken sentences with a wink or a smirk.
Glimmers of his love and deep passion for storytelling shine a bright light on even the darkest conversations between him and Augustus. When the weary detective inquires about the meaning behind one of the victims’ hearts being cut out if its chest, Poe (ironically) comes alive, unable to contain his excitement at this opportunity to explain why he thinks that a poet was responsible for so calculated and gnarly a kill. “Well, the heart is a symbol, or it is nothing. Now take away the symbol, and what do you have?” he asks, accompanied by many hand gestures, of course. “It’s a fistful of muscle of no more aesthetic interest than a bladder.” Augustus, being the skeptic that he is, counters that this poet would have to be a quite literal one. “Oh, you cannot pretend that this act of savagery did not startle the literary resonances from the very crevices of your mind!” Poe exclaims. He even follows this up with quotes from a song by English poet Lord Suckling and even the Bible. But he doesn’t just recite these lines, he performs them, bringing a vibrancy that sharply contrasts Bale’s far more restrained and passive character.
Melling’s Edgar Allan Poe brightens an otherwise (literally) dark film and changes the way we see the macabre writer. This departure from the Poe most of us expected to see is quite refreshing (and according to Cooper, more accurate) and effective, as it provides an origin for the famous author before he wrote the horror works that would define him. Heck, Poe even says at one point in The Pale Blue Eye that he is often “misunderstood.” He exudes an innocence and nervousness when trying to convince the academy doctor that he has vertigo in order to get permission to sit out from his typical cadet duties.
Nothing is more precious than when Poe first lays eyes on Augustus Landor’s collection of books. The young poet giddily runs over to the filled shelves, so overcome with glee that the only thing he can think to blurt out is, well, “books!” His eyes scan the spines with a hunger akin to that of a kid in a candy store. “You have never interested me more,” he says with a hilarious conviction. This little one-man show even elicits a smile out of the rather stoic investigator. And man, the joy that fills Poe when he finds a book of poems by Lord Byron is just priceless.
That all being said, this iteration of Poe is certainly not all fun and games. Melling is sure to layer in the sorrow and longing that would be so prevalent in the fiction writer’s future revered works. When Augustus goes as far as accusing him of the murders, a saddened Poe informs him that if he were to take down all of the peers that wronged him, there would hardly be any left. This suffering fueled the empathy Poe had for others, and is likely what led him to burning the evidence and letting Augustus get away with the crimes he was pretending to solve. This bright-eyed, effervescent spin on the eventual death-obsessed writer is a charming and unexpected source of levity in an otherwise dreary picture. Harry Melling’s performance in The Pale Blue Eye might not be the Poe you know, but it’s the Poe you need.
The Pale Blue Eye is now streaming on Netflix.