Scott Cooper’s films technically occupy a variety of genres, but they tend to feel similar because they’re so often pulp stories teetering on the verge of tragedy, and sometimes toppling into it. The 2021 horror film Antlers, the 2015 gangster picture Black Mass, and the 2013 family crime drama Out of the Furnace might all have better reputations if they were either a little more fun, or a little less. Their serious yet workmanlike approach to genre-friendly material makes Cooper’s new Netflix film The Pale Blue Eye an immediate candidate for his best work, because it applies that same workmanlike seriousness to a premise that’s shamelessly pulpy: In 1830, a young (and fictionalized) Edgar Allan Poe helps a detective solve a murder mystery at the United States Military Academy in West Point.
This is not a prequel to The Raven, the 2012 John Cusack film that also paired a fictional Poe with a detective in order to solve a series of murders. Cooper is adapting an appropriately Edgar-nominated novel by Louis Bayard, and he doesn’t take the story into a winking, silly direction. Instead, he casts his frequent collaborator, professional sourpuss Christian Bale, as lonely detective August Landor, who’s summoned to West Point to investigate a disturbing mutilation following an apparent suicide; a body initially found hanging from a tree later had its heart removed by unknown parties. Landor quickly points out that it’s clearly a murder case, and agrees to find the killer. Early in his investigation, he receives a bit of advice from a young cadet named Poe (played by the Harry Potter films’ Harry Melling): “The man you’re looking for is a poet.”
Poe, of course, knows poetry. His interest in literature is just one element contributing to his outcast status at West Point, and he recognizes the symbolic nature of removing the heart after death. In Landor, he finds a quietly kindred spirit: When he sees the detective’s well-stocked bookshelves, he’s in ecstasy. Melling — who played Harry Potter antagonist Dudley Dursley before taking on roles in projects like The Queen’s Gambit and Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth — really does resemble photos of Poe. While his Virginian accent is a little cartoony, in the usual manner of English actors playing American, it works as part of his whole weirdo presentation.
Melling plays Poe as a showoff who may be a bit too shy and self-aware to have found an enthusiastic audience. Bale, for his part, lets his natural intensity recede enough that Landor becomes that audience. Their odd-couple team-up develops an understated tenderness amid all the ghoulish elements that call back to Poe’s stories and poems: removed hearts, coded messages, and Poe pining over a sickly woman (Lucy Boynton).
The rest of the cast is stacked: Melling’s Harry Potter co-stars Toby Jones and Timothy Spall, along with Simon McBurney, Charlotte Gainsbourg, The X-Files’ Gillian Anderson, and in a tiny part, Robert Duvall. All the big names provide more color than truly memorable scenes, though: In some cases, they’re mere accessories to their characters’ elaborate beards and hats. (This is a terrific beards-and-hats picture.) With so many distinguished older performers afoot, it can be hard to tell the younger, less weathered cadets apart, which diminishes the movie’s already sparse lineup of suspects. Will Poe himself later become a suspect, even though the audience will not for a minute believe that he’s guilty? Naturally. This is not a movie that flouts murder mystery traditions, which the real Poe helped establish.
Still, the slightly underwhelming mystery plotting and general crime-novel luridness don’t limit The Pale Blue Eye as much as they should, because of the engaging lead characters and the wintry landscape they inhabit. Dabbling in rural horror again, Cooper pulls back from Antlers’ viscerally damp rot. The snow of not-quite-upstate New York looks pristine in the film’s black-white-blue color palette. The atmosphere isn’t full Poe-style gothic, but there are gorgeously moody touches, like a conversation staged with two characters turned almost completely into silhouettes against the moonlight — living shadow puppets in the woods.
At times, the focus on a remote-looking outpost in a beautiful landscape, as well as the mystery death under investigation, make the movie resemble a winter Western as much as a horror-tinged thriller. Either way, it’s the rare January movie that feels seasonally appropriate for the chilly post-holiday blues — a movie meant to be watched while cozying up by a fire, whether your fireplace is figurative or literal.
Cooper still has a little trouble luxuriating in the mood he generates. Though it’s not fair to expect a full Tim Burton work-up of this material, The Pale Blue Eye doesn’t capture the twinges of madness that inform some of Poe’s most famous stories, the way some of his narrators draw the readers into their destructive obsessions. In this movie, Poe is more of a romantic Sherlock Holmes figure: the eccentric, misunderstood genius capable of examining the world as a beautiful puzzle box.
The movie doesn’t have much use for the most meta dimension to the story: the fact that the real Poe helped invent modern detective fiction. (Granted, leaning too hard on that idea could have been insufferable.) Cooper and Bale seem more comfortable with Landor’s brand of melancholy, informed by the absence of his wife and daughter, as well as some of the odd, unexpected pauses Bale takes in some of his line deliveries. At times, the movie feels like it’s having fun in spite of itself. So it’s perfect, in a way, that Edgar Allan Poe keeps turning up to jolt his own story back to life.
The Pale Blue Eye is streaming on Netflix now.