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Nathan Weinbender reviews "The Pale Blue Eye"

The Pale Blue Eye is a mystery in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, who pioneered the genre as we know it with morbid tales like The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Purloined Letter. It’s not enough that this film takes inspiration from those stories; it even features young Poe as a character, depicted here (perhaps accurately) as a wallflower with the same powers of deductive reasoning as the detective characters he would later invent.

The movie opens in 1830 in the lower Hudson Valley of New York, when a private investigator named Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) is stirred from a self-imposed retirement. He’s summoned to West Point Academy because one of the young cadets has hanged himself, and while his body was on a slab in the mortuary, somebody surgically removed his heart. The commanding officers (Timothy Spall and Simon McBurney) want the culprit identified, but they also want it to remain hush-hush.

As Landor begins his investigation, he starts to get intel from another cadet, one Edgar A. Poe (Harry Melling). It’s no surprise that young Edgar was a bit of a social outcast: An aspiring poet who spends most of his time observing everyone else, he becomes Landor’s unexpected — and sometimes begrudging — sidekick.

Because Poe’s troubled future is known to us, we recognize that he’s to follow in Landor’s footsteps. Landor’s reputation precedes him: He’s a heavy drinker, and though he’s told to stay sober during the investigation, he spends most of his time in the nearby pub anyway. While Landor begins a fling with the bar proprietor played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, Poe becomes infatuated with Lucy Boynton as the troubled daughter of the local surgeon (Toby Jones), and this star-crossed relationship is echoed in the darkness of Landor’s own past.

There are obviously a lot of thorny, haunted, deeply flawed men in this movie, and it’s about a world that caters to and even rewards them. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t extend any moral ambiguity to its women characters, most of whom are written with the flimsiest of clichés. Landor’s wife is dead, recalled in flashbacks where she’s always bathed in golden light. His teenage daughter, meanwhile, has gone missing, and she haunts him in dreams right out of a horror movie. Gainsbourg, a great actress capable of ferocity and weirdness, here plays a character of so little consequence that it’s almost insulting. Only Gillian Anderson, as the eccentric wife of Jones’ doctor, gets some scenery to chew, but her character is merely a collection of tics.

Director Scott Cooper is aiming for a gloomy, imposing tone here, which is helped along by the moody cinematography of Masanobu Takayanagi, who conjures up beguiling shots of fog rolling across fields and of shadows standing out in sharp relief against the chilly blue dusk. Bale and Melling are also very good in their scenes together: Melling, in particular, has the difficult task of making Poe into more than just a raven-obsessed eccentric, and there’s a wounded quality to his performance that gives the role a depth that I don’t think was on the page.

As for the mystery itself, I have to admit that The Pale Blue Eye, which is based on a novel by Louis Bayard, has a double reverse ending that genuinely fooled me. I guess that counts for something.

Nathan Weinbender is a co-host of Spokane Public Radio’s “Movies 101” heard Friday evenings at 6:30 here on KPBX.