Photo: ‘The Pale Blue Eye’
‘The Pale Blue Eye’ is a contemplative film about the mysterious death of a West Point cadet. Detective Augustus Landor (a stoic and dutiful Christian Bale) is put on the case by the academy generals. Aiding him is none other than doom-and-gloom poet extraordinaire Edgar Allen Poe, then a young West Point cadet himself. An expert in deduction and an expert in language, they team up to slowly unravel just what exactly happened on that cold fateful night of Leroy Fry’s death.
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Like Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry, this is a peculiar tale based on a book. It’s appropriately macabre, as the nature of the death is creepy and seemingly involves rituals, the Academy contains dark lengthy corridors in multitudes, and the constant white flurrying of snow outside is chilling in more ways than one. Everything about this movie’s design screams “gothic”. ‘The Pale Blue Eyes’ pulls off these things startlingly well, too. However, there are more ways that director Scott Cooper brings the source material to life. Most of these elements are intangible. Christian Bale’s top-notch performance, the accuracy of the setting, and a moving message about prolonged grief and the psychological effects of violence. While it’s not without its flaws, these things are seminal to elevate it to something worth watching.
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‘The Pale Blue Eye’ – Performance
Christian Bale is used to churning out excellent performance after excellent performance and this is no exception. Christian Bale brings Augustus Landor to life in all his restrained suffering and hard-nosed inquisitiveness. As a detective dealing with the grief of his disappeared daughter, it plagues his state of mind in subtle and unsubtle ways. Bale deals with both elegantly. When Landor is explaining what happened to his daughter without trying to let on how much it bothers him, Bale tightens his face and nearly speaks through his teeth. When Augustus imagines his daughter in the corner of his room, Bale falls to his knees and openly weeps into his daughter’s arms. It gives dimensions to his mourning and shows that he still has his headspace significantly filled up with this tragedy.
This is crucial to the quality of the film. ‘The Pale Blue Eye’ relies on believable acting to make its story make sense. The story itself is intense and almost hard to buy as something that could happen in the real world. In order to ground some of the more abstract elements, the acting has to counterbalance them. Christain Bale isn’t the only actor here that knocks it out of the park. For instance, Harry Melling plays the one and only Edgar Allen Poe. His portrayal also tries to do the same thing as Bale does for Augustus. Melling understands he’s playing a person that most people think of as larger than life and that they think of him as a symbol rather than a human being. When Poe gets angry or dramatic, there’s still a certain understatedness and realism that exists within this portrayal. We get a sense of who Poe is not just as an idea or an author of some world-famous poems, but also as a person. He falls in love, he gets scared at being talked down to, and he gets angry when accused of wrongdoings. It’s felt in Melling’s performance, and provides an entry point into enjoying the character.
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Time period accuracy
This story takes place in 1830 at West Point, New York. Back then, the fashion styles were what we now call “Victorian-inspired”. Early 1830s clothes were defined by their large showy sleeves and extravagant frills. In the scenes where the characters are all at dinner, this is especially accurate. The characters are all dressed up in colorful elaborate suits and dresses. Another thing that was researched to be accurate was the military uniforms the cadets wore at West Point. They are all stark blue with gold-plated buttons vertically decorating the entire middle.
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Having period-accurate props and settings is tantamount to creating an immersive world for the viewer to step into and lose themselves in. ‘The Pale Blue Eye’ makes sure that all the sets feel from the 1830s. West Point’s atmosphere is meticulously crafted in excruciating detail.
Plot and message
This film has one major theme, grief. Plenty of people in the story have experienced or are still experiencing grief. Without spoiling specifics, the various families who start losing loved ones act out in strange and harmful ways. There are also some characters who lost someone or something a long time ago, and yet are still experiencing the ramifications of grief. Poe lost his mother at a young age, and it changed the relationship he has with death and other people in the present. Detective Landor is still grieving the loss of his daughter, and while it subtly impacts the way he views the world and his relationship with other people throughout the story, the full scope of its gruesome effects only shows itself towards the end.
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How each character copes with their grief teaches us a lot about the feeling in general. When we don’t tend to it in a timely or healthy manner, we act on it in unhealthy and hurtful ways. It can easily be pointed to as the one unifying reason why any character ends up hurting another character over the course of the narrative. When the mystery of death is finally solved, it also solves the long-standing pain he carries for his daughter. Only when he fully confronted this did he finally come to terms with what happened and let go.
This movie was made for people who enjoy the bizarre and the gothic. Christian Bale fans will also love this movie, as it’s another masterful performance. There is also a lot for mystery fans to dig into with the main plot. All around, it brings together a really unique patchwork of fans from very different corners of the media world. ‘The Pale Blue Eye’ is now streaming on Netflix.
By Zachary DePiore
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