The Pale Blue Eye starts off strongly, drags in the middle, then picks up again in the third act, albeit through a plot development that's a lot crazier than the set-up has prepared us for. Writer/director Scott Cooper (Black Mass) is adapting Louis Bayard's novel here. Maybe he's being completely faithful to the material. I didn't read the book, so I don't know. Regardless, the tone is unbalanced, so it feels as though you start off watching one movie and end up watching a totally different one.
The first act is terrific, setting up an intriguing mystery. Christian Bale stars as Augustus Landor, a detective brought in to solve a murder at West Point in 1830. A cadet was hanged, then had his heart cut out. No one knows why. Landor begins digging through the clues, only to repeatedly hit a wall when questioning the other cadets, who clam up or respond in riddles. The only person willing to assist is an eccentric young man named Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling). Having the not-yet-famous author assisting in a murder investigation is a tantalizing prospect, and Melling gives Poe an offbeat personality that promises fun.
This leads to the second act. Momentum should build here given the basics that have been established. Instead, it slows down as Poe spends a lot of time trying to subtly extract information from his fellow cadets, and Landor consults with the school's physician, Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones). The doctor is married to a haughty woman, played by Gillian Anderson in a witty, scene-stealing performance that's the best thing in the whole film. She's the bright spot in a section that gets bogged down with exposition.
Act three springs back to life with a bizarre revelation that is seemingly a nod to Poe's history of writing horror tales. Although not boring, the manner in which that revelation plays out is silly and contrived. Maybe it would have worked had The Pale Blue Eye inferred that what transpires somehow dictates the course of Poe's writing career. But then the story would need to be his, and it's not. It's Landor's story, as we're reminded in a frustrating coda that attempts to pull the rug out from under the audience with a second revelation that doesn't quite add up. Far more groundwork needed to be laid in order for the ending to feel earned. Instead, the final ten or fifteen minutes come off as a gimmick, like the film wants to extend itself by throwing a curveball at the audience.
Performances in the movie are excellent, with Bale making a perfectly inquisitive Landor, and Melling adding an appropriate dose of quirky intrigue. Cooper and cinematographer Masanobu Yakayanagi infuse the story with a moody atmosphere that plunges you back into the 1800s and creates an air of danger. On that visual level, the film really excels. Much of it was filmed in Pittsburgh, but you would never know from looking at it. First-rate production design brings the time period alive.
Those elements are so good that they make me wish I liked The Pale Blue Eye more than I did. All the ingredients are here for a great mystery. Had the pacing been tweaked and the ending staged in a less manipulative way, it would have been a great mystery. Instead, the movie is just good enough to be a disappointment.
out of four
The Pale Blue Eye is rated R for some violent content and bloody images. The running time is 2 hours and 8 minutes.