How did Edgar Allan Poe invent the detective story? Was it a simple matter of writing what he knew? That is the explanation offered by The Pale Blue Eye, a brooding horror movie written and directed by Scott Cooper. Like the novel it was based on, the movie is a piece of historical fiction. Almost nothing that takes place in the story ever happened, but it’s still fun imagining that it did.
The gruesome events of Eye take place at West Point, New York, circa 1830. On a fog-laden evening in the dead of winter, near the United States Military Academy, a young cadet is found hanging from a tree. Hours later, the corpse’s heart is removed by someone with the skill of a surgeon. Superintendent Thayer (Timothy Spall) calls upon retired constable Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) to figure out who is responsible for the grisly deed. (Landor is renowned for putting tough criminals behind bars and obtaining “gloveless confessions”.)
After carefully examining the body, Landor deduces that the cadet didn’t kill himself, as Dr. Marquis (Toby Jones) surmised. He was hanged. Landor also finds a piece of a note in the hand of the victim. (A clue!) At the local bar, Landor meets an odd duck who drinks alone, a cadet named Poe (Harry Melling). Poe states plainly that he has no friends at the Academy, so nobody notices when he’s away. (In real life, Poe was miserable there and eventually got himself thrown out.) Landor immediately recognizes Poe’s intellect and includes him in the case.
Working methodically, Landor uncovers a site where satanic rituals have taken place. This, he believes, was the reason why the cadet was killed and his heart removed. Soon after, another cadet is found murdered and his heart removed, causing Thayer to demand Landor to work faster. Meanwhile, Poe has become enchanted with Dr. Marquis’ daughter Lea. She is beautiful and cultured, but is slowly dying from consumption. Soon, the paths of Landor and Poe collide, and the murderer is revealed. Or is it? The mystery of who killed the cadet is actually contained within a larger mystery, the revelation of which gives Poe the opportunity to use what he’s learned from his mentor. Although in this case, knowledge doesn’t lead to justice, or peace.
With its $55m budget, Eye is the most beautifully crafted Poe-themed movie I’ve ever seen. (I like the Corman adaptations from the Sixties, but they were definitely made on the cheap.) I wished I could have seen the movie in a theater, so that I could fully appreciate the vastness of its snow-covered landscapes and its many gothic interiors. The movie runs over two hours and the pace is a bit too leisurely at times, but the movie’s last thirty minutes are well worth the wait. (The movie’s denouement is simply incredible.)
Four-time Academy Award nominee Bale is known for his technical artistry. With Eye, he delivers a straight-forward, emotionally raw performance that I connected to more than his other critically acclaimed performances. Of all of the Christian Bale performances I’ve seen, this is one of the most “relatable” ones, built only upon his captivating mixture of intelligence and intensity.
While Bale’s performance is very moving, Eye’s biggest revelation is Harry Melling. Once upon a time, Melling was primarily known for being Harry Potter’s cousin and tormentor. His transformation into Poe is simply remarkable. Physically, with his bulbous head, thinning hair and small, deep-set eyes, Melling certainly looks like a young Poe. The voice he gives Poe seems directly inspired by Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. Coupled with Poe’s colorful diction, it’s a performance that is mutually crazy and inspired. If this movie doesn’t produce some noteworthy roles for Melling in the future, I don’t know what will. Recommended.
Eye forced me to admit how little time I’ve invested in the artist who serves as the inspiration of the movie. I read some of Poe’s poetry in High School, but haven’t devoted any time to reading his works since. I’ve seen several movie adaptations of his short stories that were entertaining despite varying widely in quality. I’m confident many other people would admit that their primary exposure to Poe is from the Roger Coreman and Vincent Price movies from the Sixties. Unfortunately, that rationalization doesn’t absolve me of my feelings of guilt for not having given Poe the attention he deserves. I’ve never read H.P. Lovecraft either, so Poe is in good company.
Without providing any hard evidence, I believe that Eye is the most expensive Edger Allen Poe-themed movie ever made. (Some articles say the budget was $72m, but that Netflix paid $55m for exclusive rights.) It’s better crafted than any Poe film adaptation I’ve seen. The people behind those films could only dream of having a budget like the one used to make this movie. Instead, they did what they could with sets strewn with spiderwebs, a big name actor or two (Price, Milland, Karloff, etc.) and Poe’s name featured prominently on the poster.
The story that Eye tells is historical fiction, with the fictional characters and events both providing Poe with the inspiration for his poems and short stories. There are references to several of his works, including The Raven, The Fall of the House of Usher and The Tell-Tale Heart. (The latter being the source of the movie’s title.) I kept waiting for a black cat to walk by and hiss at the camera. Eye certainly is not alone in providing Poe fan service. The Netflix series Wednesday includes a school after him that also has a statue of him. To its credit, Eye keeps the name-dropping to a minimum and does it with respect.
Poe is known as having invented the detective genre, and Eye offers up the fictional Landor as the basis for that invention. Landor is never referred to as a detective in the movie. He’s a retired constable who has a track record of getting to the bottom of things. He analyzes the evidence, considers the facts and asks probing questions of suspects and witnesses. Poe isn’t on hand to witness everything Landor does, but is around him enough to get a feel for how he does what he does. The relationship between Landor and Poe is an interesting one. They’re not friends or colleagues, and they don’t work together to solve the case. Landor is more like a mentor, teaching Poe how to think like a detective.
The first 1:45 of the movie comes off as a serious-minded Poe knock-off. Poe is unable to suss out the evil intent of the people he’s involved with and puts himself in danger, just like the narrator of The Pit and the Pendulum. Eye reminded me of Spielberg’s Young Sherlock Holmes. Like the young Holmes, Poe is very intelligent and perceptive, but also naive. When Landor saves Poe from certain death, the central mystery of the story appears to have been resolved. That’s when I looked at the time remaining and realized that the story was not really over. With fifteen minutes left, the movie finally unveils what it actually is about. As much as I enjoyed everything up to this point, the denouement was incredible. (I hate to describe it as a “twist ending”, since M. Night Shyamalan has given them a bad name.)
As constructed, the scene where Poe explains how he solved the mystery behind the mystery is typical of a murder mystery. Poe’s gripping monologue is juxtaposed with a series of flashbacks that show how Landor was the actual murderer and cleverly pinned his crimes on the Marquis family. While the scene is a typical conclusion for a murder mystery, the performances by Bale and Melling take it to another level. On the one hand, Poe has finally become the detective in his own story. He’s finally able to use what he’s learned from Landor to decipher the clues that have been hiding in plain sight. As Landor tells Poe, “You were the one I was to deliver myself to all along. I knew that from the moment I first met you, and here we are.” The tables have turned and the student has become the master.
On the other hand, Poe’s growing confidence is tempered by the knowledge that Landor’s crimes are the result of personal tragedy. Poe is very cognizant of inflicting more pain on a man who is incredibly damaged. Poe sympathizes with Landor, viewing him as a tragic hero whose only recourse was revenge. Poe’s triumph is a hollow one, because only he will ever know the truth. He cannot expose Landor’s crimes, because that would only result in Landor’s execution. That knowledge will haunt Poe for the rest of his life, just like the suicide of Mattie continues to haunt Landor.
Eye is ultimately about Poe’s loss of innocence. At the beginning, he prided himself on being a well-educated man, someone who valued truth and knowledge. At the end of the movie, Poe realizes that both are meaningless if they cannot result in the one thing Landor wanted: justice. Knowing the truth gives Poe no sense of pride or comfort. It has only brought him misery. Tragedy cannot be out-smarted. Landor is doomed to live a life of sadness, and there isn’t a thing Poe can do to help him.
Eye is impressively well made. I mentioned above that it must be the most expensive Poe-inspired movie ever made. It also ranks as one of the best looking horror movies that I’ve seen. Every technical aspect about it screams prestige. Scott Cooper’s direction is excellent, as is the cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi and Howard Shore’s ominous and enthralling score. My nit-pick would be that at two hours and eight minutes, the movie is slow moving at times. The shots of the snowy New York countryside look great, but I didn’t need so many of them. For most of its run time, Eye has a leisurely pace, picking up steam very gradually. If it had been more tightly edited, it would have been under two hours and been a much more gripping experience.
Christian Bale is one of the actors working today that I would describe as a chameleon. The way he completely disappears into a role reminds me of Peter Sellers. Like Sellers, he has the uncanny ability to come off as familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. He seems to enjoy disappearing behind makeup, prosthetics or an accent, and sometimes all three. As Augustus Landor, Bale partially hides behind a full, scruffy beard, but otherwise his performance is built more on emotion than pure technique. (He’s one of the few actors who can do both extremely well.)
The typical Christian Bale performance is a captivating mixture of intelligence and intensity. His characters command attention because you never know which side you will see in a given moment. The same is true in Eye, where Landor is described as a somewhat brutish constable, someone who can get a suspect to confess just by staring at them. But the intelligence is always there, lurking behind his piercing stare. What Bale does in Eye isn’t anything new, but it held my attention regardless. He’s a bit of a live wire in that you never know if he’ll confront someone with his sharp insight or a punch to the nose.
Bale is one of our greatest living actors, as his four Academy Award nominations attest. He challenges himself in ways that few actors do, and he brings an emotional rawness to Landor that elevates what could have been a run-of-the-mill aggrieved father role. After seeing this movie and thinking back on his other performances, I noticed that he’s never done comedy. He’s had funny moments in American Hustle and The Big Short, but his career has been overwhelmingly defined by dramatic roles. Given how much of a chameleon he is, I wonder why he’s never tried his hand at comedy. He seems to relish a challenge, and there’s nothing harder to do than make people laugh. Not that he needs any career advice from me.
I was completely surprised by Harry Melling’s performance. He’s come a long way from playing Dudley Dursley, Harry Potter’s cousin and tormentor. He did well in a supporting role in The Queen’s Gambit, but nothing would have prepared me for his remarkable transformation in Eye. Melling certainly looks like a young Poe, with his bulbous head and penetrating stare. Given the dark nature of Poe’s works, I assumed that he spoke with a deeper voice. Instead, Melling gives Poe the same high-pitched, nasally whine that is reminiscent of Daniel Day Lewis gave in Lincoln. After a while, I got used to the delivery and was able to focus on his incredible performance. It’s confident, showy and unforgettable, something that Bale would have attempted in his younger days. Melling’s performance is so outre that I’m surprised it received no critical recognition. Hopefully it leads to more roles like this one.
The movie has a superlative supporting cast. Timothy Spall (Wormtail from the Harry Potter movies) is the pompous and brash Superintendent Thayer. Toby Jones is also on hand in yet another failing superior role (see The Wonder, Atomic Blonde). Charlotte Gainsbourg brings a worldly understanding and sensitivity to Landor’s girlfriend Patsy. Simon McBurney (Magic in the Moonlight) is great fun as the insinuating Captain Hitchcock. He’s one of those actors who can read anything and be interesting. Gillian Anderson chews a bit of scenery as Mrs. Julia Marquis. (The movie amazingly suggests that Anderson and Jones are the same height.) If you look past the beard you’ll notice the great Robert Duvall as Jean Pepe, keeper of mystic secrets.