Pale Blue Eye: Edgar Allen Poe likes to slow it down

Director Scott Cooper has a lot of promise. His earlier films, although divisive, show a distinct vision that is indebted to genre directors of years past such as William Friedkin and Francis Ford Coppola. His cinematic endeavors, whether it was the pulpy horror “Antlers” or the melodrama “Crazy Heart,” always lended themselves to Cooper’s strengths as a director. With this in mind, his latest film, “The Pale Blue Eye,” should be a success on paper. Sadly, the film bleeds dullness and cannot shed its bloated pretensions.

A neat genre mashup, “The Pale Blue Eye” is a gothic whodunnit starring Christian Bale and Harry Melling. Set in 1830, it follows Augustus Landor (Bale), a preeminent detective with a reputation for cracking seemingly unsolvable mysteries. Haunted by the memory of his daughter who disappeared a few years prior, he has turned to a life of alcoholism. One day he is called up by a colonel at West Point to solve the murder of a cadet who was hanged and then had his heart carved from his chest. In a metatextual move, he enlists a fictional version of a young Edgar Allen Poe (Melling) to help.

At its core, the central failing of “The Pale Blue Eye” is that it is, to put it bluntly, boring. So much of the runtime is spent following the two protagonists as they investigate matters in the most mundane way possible: reading books, going on long ponderous walks and staring at crime scenes with great contemplation. Admittedly, this is a problem a lot of detective films are faced with. The need to convey minutiae that would be boring to an outside observer, such as gathering evidence, in a cinematic way frequently breaks procedural films, and “The Pale Blue Eye”’ is no different. 

To make matters worse, the film’s self-referential qualities fall flat for the same reason. Incorporating Edgar Allen Poe as a character into a gothic mystery sounds like fun, but Poe is a writer, and presenting writing as an exciting thing on film can be incredibly tedious.

In fact, many films that do follow writers chose to completely eschew the writing quality in favor of something else, like Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation” which turns from a comedy about a screenwriter into a crime thriller. As such, when “The Pale Blue Eye’s” central mystery is solved, the audience has been lulled into an almost comatose state after spending an hour and a half watching a very serious Landor and Poe do very serious things very, very seriously.

However, the film does have a few positives going for it. Bale and Melling, particularly the former, give strong performances. Bale’s brooding energy that simultaneously feels focused but also as though it might explode at any moment gives an additional dimension to a character who is otherwise blandly written. Melling perfectly captures the eccentric genius energy of Poe as a master problem solver yet someone who is also only a few degrees away from being the primary antagonist. It is also a pleasure to see a dramatic genre film get a more substantial budget and a release on a major streaming service. It feels like it is the last of a dying breed.

Nonetheless, these admirable qualities are not enough to save the picture. “The Pale Blue Eye” really does commit the gravest crime a detective film can, which is being monotonous. Oftentimes when it comes to movies of this nature, it is far more pleasurable to watch a bad movie that at least swings for the fences than a mediocre film that has the pace of a lethargic sea slug. Cooper’s newest project clearly falls into the latter category.