Movie Review: The Pale Blue Eye

You know, I get why Scott Cooper isn’t for everyone.

The director of Hostiles and Antlers makes movies that are ponderous, bleak, frequently difficult, often unrelentingly unpleasant, and I get why they are Too Much for some people (not in the “look at me, I’m so much more hardcore in my movie tastes than you” way, but in a “I get it, misery at that level of consistency can be monotonous” way). But that’s why I keep finding myself drawn to his work His movies usually divide both critics and audiences, and there’s nothing more seductively interesting to me than a film that people either love or hate. Well, except maybe Gillian Anderson.

And his latest, The Pale Blue Eye, happens to feature both those things. Adapted from Louis Bayard’s 2003 novel of the same name, The Pale Blue Eye follows retired detective Augustus (Christian Bale), who enlists the help of a young Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling) to investigate the mysterious death of one of Poe’s fellow cadets in 1830’s New York. Serious spoilers ahead, so please be aware if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

And I have to admit, of the love-hate divide, I think this might be one of Cooper’s movies I fall on the “hate” side of. Well, no, that’s not true – I don’t hate The Pale Blue Eye, far from it. It’s a handsomely shot, sumptuously presented gothic period mystery with echoes of Barry Lyndon in the production design and execution; the feel is immaculate, the costuming and set design almost absurdly beautiful.

More than anything, though, The Pale Blue Eye is an acting showcase: Harry Melling as Poe has received near-universal acclaim in this role, and you just can’t deny how bloody brilliant he is. Pretentious, priggish, passionate, and profoundly earnest in turn, he goes from broad caricature to pitch-perfect gothic hero, Melling’s skill in the detail here, finding the small moments to bring the character to life. Christian Bale, reliable as ever, acts as a perfect foil as the more restrained Augustus, while Gillian Anderson (even though she’s in all of about ten minutes) chews the scenery up as the deeply odd Mrs Marquis.

But my issues with The Pale Blue Eye lie with the script and the plotting. The mystery that kicks off the story is reasonably interesting, a classic gothic mystery tinged with esoterica, and, while it feels in places a little rushed, it’s conclusion about three-quarters of the way into the movie isn’t bad (apart from the tragic waste of Lucy Boynton, who feels a bit too wan and tragic for her own good here, especially after her phenomenally fun turn in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans). But the twist in the tale comes when it’s revealed that Augustus was the one committing the murders, as revenge for his daughter’s gang-rape at the hands of a group of cadets, and ensuing suicide.

As a twist, I don’t think it’s terrible, but it’s execution really feels off to me. We are walked through this woman’s rape and suicide by Poe and Augustus, and her violent assault is used as little more than a sting in the tail for these men to wring hands about in the final act. It’s a classic and almost comically exact example of sexual violence against women used as a starting point for plots that revolve entirely around men, and I really hoped we were past this staid, sensationalist depiction of sexual assault by now. When I see rape being used like this in a story, with the act and the victim existing as a spur for other characters while we only see their experiences translated through other people’s (and especially men’s) emotions, it always feels exploitative to me.

The Pale Blue Eye has some masterful elements, and is well worth a watch just for Harry Melling alone, it’s ultimately disappointing in the plot department, and feels like an unfortunate throwback to an era of storytelling about sexual assault that centres anyone other than the victim in it.

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By Lou MacGregor

(header image via MovieWeb)

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