“The boundaries which divide life from death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the one begins?” It’s a spooky epigraph at the outset of The Pale Blue Eye (streaming Friday on Netflix) — a quote from a short story by Edgar Allan Poe before a shot of thick fog that clears to reveal a hanged man.
Slippery as the lines between life and death may be, there’s a clear demarcation of the point at which writer-director Scott Cooper’s latest — in which Poe is a principal character — collapses into clumsiness. It’s neither when newly minted U.S. Senator John Fetterman turns up for a cameo nor when Robert Duvall drops by for a role that rivals Hustle for negligible Netflix screen time. It’s after the moment when Toby Jones and Gillian Anderson — part of a (possibly literal) murderer’s row alongside fine character actors and actresses like Timothy Spall, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Simon McBurney — are left to their very voluminous devices in a scene where the only thing louder is a raging fire.
If the ensuing absurdities afterward are adapted verbatim from Louis Bayard’s novel, that’s not Cooper’s narrative fault. But dawdling through an entire denouement to explain everything anew with dopey flashbacks and a dramatically inert ending … well, that is on Cooper — who fritters away the promise of a first hour that feels like a 19th-century spin on Se7en.
That hanged man, discovered in New York’s Hudson Valley circa 1830, is a cadet at the United States Military Academy in West Point. What looks like death by suicide is actually murder, and with rather violent, mutilative specifics. Eager to ferret out the culprit, West Point brass turn to Augustus Landor (Christian Bale), a reclusive detective and legend among constables for his skills at code-breaking, crowd control and “loveless interrogation” (a great description as Cooper tells it but less so as he shows it).
Landor’s investigation eventually intersects with an obsequiously observant Poe (Harry Melling), socially cast out among his fellow cadets but whom Landor eventually, and secretly, appoints as his apprentice. As more victims are found with increasingly mangled bodies, Landor and Poe must pool their powers and put to rest a menacing matter of family secrets, occult rituals and frequent fermatas in the speech pattern of star Bale (reteaming with Cooper after the similarly so-so Out of the Furnace and the wretched, risible Hostiles).
Seriously, The Pale Blue Eye might feel 10 minutes shorter without
… so many pauses …
… between words from …
… Christian Bale, buried under a bushy Brolin-esque haircut and indulging in hard diction.
Bale and Melling are good scene partners — the latter a fiveheaded dead-ringer for Poe, whom he portrays as a sort of Southern-fried Sherlock attempting to ferret out feelings, emotions and intent, while perhaps getting a bit too close to a prime suspect (Lucy Boynton). In the early going, the pair play Landor and Poe like a more loquacious spin on Mills and Somerset, drawing back philosophical and literary veils on murder, misery, war, isolation and creation.
The Pale Blue Eye proves far more sallow when sifting through Landor’s tumultuous past — first with halfhearted hallucinations brought on by Landor’s drinking and then full-bore in a bloated finale that feels like a certain Charlie Kaufman joke taken too far. If upon a midnight dreary, you should ponder, weak and weary, The Pale Blue Eye, well … you’ll probably be nodding and nearly napping over yet another quaint and curious volume of forgotten Netflix lore.