As a director, Scott Cooper has achieved a reputation for handling the tough textures of the western; now he applies that expertise to this enjoyable if entirely preposterous historical mystery thriller, adapted by Cooper from the 2003 bestseller by Louis Bayard, an author renowned for his ingenious reimaginings of real-life historical figures and famous fictional characters.
The Pale Blue Eye takes place in 1830 and Christian Bale, in full haunted/bearded mode (the same that he had for Cooper’s 2017 western drama Hostiles), plays renowned detective Augustus Landor; he is in a semi-retired, semi-hermit state, a sad widower whose daughter has disappeared. But Landor is strangely taken with a grotesque case that is put to him. A cadet at the US military academy in West Point has been murdered; hanged and his heart cut out of his body. Various glowering and bewhiskered senior officers (played by Simon McBurney and Timothy Spall) are prepared to overlook Landor’s boozy insolent attitude because of his reputation for brilliant crime-solving.
But Landor needs some help with this bizarre case – and he gets it from a certain officer cadet, one Edgar Allan Poe (played with exotic solemnity by Harry Melling) who with his dreamy-melancholy manner and his predilection for poetry and strange yearning fantasies, might be just the man who could intuit what is going on. (And of course, Poe really was briefly an officer cadet at West Point.) Could it be that this horrible case involving a heart might inspire Poe’s later work? A certain raven is seen croaking away there as well.
As Landor’s investigations continue, he finds himself bewildered not merely by the whimsical Poe, but by the military doctor and his wife on the base (a Dickensian couple played with gusto by Toby Jones and Gillian Anderson), and an expert on the occult played by Robert Duvall. As things turn out, this case turns on a rather ridiculous coincidence: but never mind, it’s an entertaining piece of counter-factual noir.
• The Pale Blue Eye is released on 23 December in cinemas and on 6 January on Netflix.