There’s a new Netflix film called The Pale Blue Eye that starts off promisingly, with nice wintry, Gothic atmosphere, but midway through goes off the rails and plunges over the cliff into such disastrous incoherence, it’s actually kind of interesting to watch. It makes you speculate what writer-director Scott Cooper (Hostiles, Crazy Heart) and star-producer Christian Bale were thinking as they sat through the innumerable screenings that are required in the postproduction process. Were they really viewing this train wreck and giving each other the thumbs up, exclaiming, “Nailed it!”?
It’s a shame, too, because I was really looking forward to the movie, which is based on an Edgar Award–nominated 2013 novel of the same name by Louis Bayard. It’s a murder mystery set at the US Military Academy at West Point in 1830, when young Edgar Allan Poe was, briefly, a cadet there. Poe is played by Harry Melling, an excellent actor whose brilliant performance as the “Wingless Thrush” in the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) convinced Cooper he’d found his Poe. Melling gives a terrific performance as the eccentric, melancholy, alienated, insightful, and already rather dissipated Poe, as he insinuates himself into the investigation of the grisly murder of a fellow cadet, who’s found hanged from a tree on the academy grounds, his heart carved out of his chest.
Drafted to lead the investigation by an arrogant West Point commanding officer (Timothy Spall doing sputtering upper-class arrogance very well), Augustus Landor (Bale) is a retired police detective of some fame who’s also a bereft widower and alcoholic with a mysteriously missing daughter. As he begins to look into the case with considerable reluctance, he’s aided by an eager Poe, who tells him intriguingly that the murderer is a poet, which Poe claims to know “because I happen to be a poet myself.”
The early scenes, shot on location, with snowy rural Pennsylvania standing in for snowy rural New York, are chillingly blue with the cold, which makes the dim lantern-lit tavern scenes, where fellow hard drinkers Landor and Poe meet, a welcome convivial escape from the grim oppressiveness of West Point. Bale is very effective in these scenes, his hard-faced leanness and hollow eyes giving him an authentic nineteenth-century look, and his wry contempt for what amounts to oxymoronic “military intelligence” is a promising tone to take in the film.
In general, The Pale Blue Eye features a surprisingly showy cast of accomplished performers, all trying to keep their heads above the increasingly choppy narrative waters, including Lucy Boynton, Toby Jones, Gillian Anderson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Robert Duvall. But it’s no use — they’re all dragged down by the wacky, convoluted plot.
Writer-director Cooper has expressed his intentions of honoring a favorite author, Poe, in this film, but his tributes tend to add to the distraction and confusion. There’s a quote from one of Cooper’s favorite Poe stories, “The Premature Burial,” at the start of the film, for example: “The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”
But the quote doesn’t directly reflect the content of the film in any illuminating or emotionally satisfying way. It isn’t really dwelling memorably in that shadowy area, though Poe claims to be in regular communion with his long-dead mother, and he falls in love with a young woman suffering and perhaps dying from seizures, termed “the falling sickness.” These plot points evoke Poe’s own pardonable obsession with women dying young, considering that in reality, both his mother and wife wasted away very early in life from tuberculosis.
The film’s title comes from Poe’s famous story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” with its disturbing description of the supposedly “evil eye” of an otherwise unoffending old man murdered by the insanely obsessed narrator:
One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture — a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees — very gradually — I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
But in The Pale Blue Eye, Poe recites the phrase as a line of poetry supposedly drawn from his mournful poem “Lenore,” which it actually isn’t — it’s entirely made-up verse. He recites it to the desperately ailing Lea Marquis (Boynton), whose name is presumably supposed to evoke Lenore. These odd, tangled references are only a minor part of the larger confusion, however, as the plot of the film lurches onward, increasingly jammed full of choppy scenes of rape, murder, suicide, gory mutilation, and Satanic ritual.
Are Cooper and Bale trying to evoke the escalating neurasthenic hysteria of many Poe tales such as “The Fall of the House of Usher”? If so, they should take another look at the stories, which are so magnificently controlled in terms of spare, precise language that’s in tension with the increasingly lurid mayhem described.
I’m inclined to go on at perhaps unnecessary length about what could briefly be dismissed as just another expensive Netflix film that doesn’t come off, because it seems to me there’s a strange dearth of Poe films, whether biopics or adaptations of Poe’s works, or some combination of both. Considering that he’s a hugely influential, highly visual writer of pioneering works in popular forms such as horror, science fiction, and detective-centered murder mysteries — a genre he founded — it’s bizarre how neglected he is.
As for biopics, many a Poe script has circulated through Hollywood in vain, trying to grapple with Poe’s exhaustingly lurid and dramatic life. Most notoriously, rumors have gone around for ages about Sylvester Stallone’s unfinished script: the action film star spent decades trying interest people in his Poe project, which was initially intended to feature Stallone himself as Poe.
Sure, there are the many 1960s Roger Corman adaptations, most of them starring Vincent Price, and some beautifully done impressionistic versions of “The Fall of the House of Usher” by avant-garde filmmaker Jean Epstein (1928) and stop-motion animation master Jan Švankmajer (1980). But what about in recent years? The Raven (2013), a movie purporting to explain the mysterious death of Poe at age forty, after he was found raving on the streets of Baltimore, where he no longer lived, wearing clothes that weren’t his own, calling for “Reynolds,” whom no one recognized as an acquaintance of his, seemed a promising idea. But it turned out to be a silly thriller starring the terribly miscast John Cusack as action-hero Poe hunting down a maniacal killer terrorizing Baltimore with his murders inspired by Poe plots.
At a time when on-screen horror is thriving and many young directors are making their mark in the genre, it seems like Poe’s time ought to have come.