For new releases looking to make an impact on the box office, the month of January should be avoided at all costs. The winter season is well underway for those in the northern hemisphere and the cold to near freezing temperatures make the idea of leaving the comfort of a warm home unbearable to think about. Luckily, streaming becoming a major option for studios to release their films makes the movie watching experience that much easier of a pill to swallow. Unluckily, one of the first films to be released in 2023 features an unrelenting dose of cold weather and feet of snow in every single direction the camera, operated by Masanobu Takayanagi captures on film.
As someone who goes out of their way to avoid and escape (unsuccessfully) cold weather, the chilling, crisp New York air that the characters reside in surrounds you, almost like a fog – I could feel the frostbite creeping up my appendages every minute that passes. Yet, the characters in The Pale Blue Eye face the harsh winter of upstate New York with ease during a period where there is no heat to be found, unless a wood burning stove is close by. I don’t know how anyone survived without constant heat – layers of clothing can only do too much.
Adapted, written and directed by Scott Cooper from the 2003 novel of the same name by Louis Bayard, Cooper fills each frame with gloom, despair and melancholy when bracing the harsh winter of 1830. Add in the stone structure known as The United States Military Academy aka West Point, where majority of the film takes place, and the cold just gets more bitter. The atmosphere Cooper creates by the grayscale color palette is complimented nicely with bright blues of the West Point uniforms. The color pops off the screen, adding some warmth to a dreadfully cold ordeal.
In keeping with the times, verisimilitude is kept by the minimal lighting indoor. Something that director Robert Eggers accomplishes with his period pieces. Having the only light source come by way of candles or daylight adds to the depressing nature this film is told in. There is no happy ending when the hero saves the day, The Pale Blue Eye winds up being a character study of depression, revenge and sadness.
Prompted by the lynching and subsequent organ harvesting of a West Point cadet, Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) is hired by Superintendent Thayer (Timothy Spall) to investigate the gruesome murder. Another cadet, Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Melling) assists Landor in bringing whoever committed these crimes to justice amidst the urgency of West Point and the United States Government. As the investigation beings to unravel, another murder and organ harvesting occurs, making the race to find the killer(s) a top priority for Thayer and Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney).
As the narrative unfolds, Edgar and Landor come across Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones) and his family – Julia (Gillian Anderson), fellow cadet Artemus (Harry Lawtey), and the talented Lea (Lucy Boynton). Landor and Edgar quickly form a bond as they begin to piece together what happened to the victims of these crimes, looking into every possibility from religion to science and every motive in between. Together as Landor and Edgar, Christian Bale and Harry Melling, who has built up quite a fine career post Harry Potter, are this stories version of Holmes and Watson. The two complement each other in their performances adding an emotional heft when the time calls for it.
There is no denying Christian Bales exquisite on-screen talent and charisma – he portrays guilt and revenge with such solemnness however, Harry Melling gives a fully engrossing performance. Part recluse part romantic and part weird, Melling is the anchor of the strong ensemble cast
Like the season Scott Coopers film takes place in, The Pale Blue Eye moves at a slow but steady pace. Cooper is in full control of his film that captures the beauty of the New York landscape. No one can deny that, and Takayanagi’s cinematography immerses us in this atmosphere. For 128 minutes, the frigid temperatures can be overlooked due to the engrossing mystery that our main characters are solving.
Compared to several other mystery thrillers, Scott Cooper’s film establishes the dreadful mood early that one would expect from the gothic backdrop. It may not fall in line with an Agatha Christie or a Rian Johnson however, Cooper weaves a compelling tale that plays out like an Edgar Allen Poe poem. Its dark, haunting, romantic and thrilling all wrapped up in a neat bow, never fully letting on where the narrative goes next. There is no happy ending or satisfactory conclusion, characters are humanized by their actions and the actions of others. Cooper’s film reminds us that people will go to extreme lengths for the ones they love – justifiable or not.
The same way a blockbuster can be identified with summer, The Pale Blue Eye can easily be identifiable with the moody, depressing winter months. Writer director Scott Cooper evokes strong themes of handling grief, revenge, religion, and belief. Paired with a searing score by Howard Shore, The Pale Blue Eye will stick to the ribs and provoke a thoughtful journey of humanity.
Screenplay By: Scott Cooper
Directed By: Scott Cooper
Music By: Howard Shore
Cinematography: Masanobu Takayanagi
Starring: Christian Bale, Harry Melling, Simon McBurney, Timothy Spall, Toby Jones, Harry Lawtey, Lucy Boynton, Robert Duvall, Gillian Anderson
Where to Watch: Netflix
Release Date: January 6, 2023
Running Time: 2 Hours 8 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 64%
Based On: The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard