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'The Pale Blue Eye' takes advantage of tried-and-true spookiness

Scott Garfield/Netflix © 2023
Netflix © 2023

Edgar Allan Poe is widely credited with inventing the modern detective story, and maybe because of that and his association with the macabre, he’s become sort of a fictional character himself, showing up in dozens of books, movies, and plays, often to solve mysteries of his own.

One of those is the 2003 novel The Pale Blue Eye, which has now been adapted as a film by the same name. Here, Poe is a cadet at West Point around 1830, where another cadet has just been found hanged, with his heart cut out. Poe is also not the detective in this story, or not exactly—that would be Augustus Landor, played by Christian Bale, who’s called in to determine what kind of crazed mind would perpetrate such an act. But Poe quickly insinuates himself into Landor’s case, bringing his theories to the detective, who recognizes the asset Poe could be and quietly brings him on as an assistant. Harry Melling gives a delightfully hammy performance as Poe, who’s clearly an odd duck but who has a knack for putting things together.

The film is chock-full of atmospheric clichés, with West Point’s campus in the dead of winter, the hooting owls and howling wind in the bare trees of the surrounding forest, and plenty of walks down dark hallways with only candlelight as our guide. But fortunately, director Scott Cooper leans hard into these clichés instead of being afraid of them, and it turns this into exactly the kind of dark, deliciously brooding detective story we’re hoping for. And it doesn’t shy away from the outright grisly, the sort of thing where our detective cracks open the fingers of a hand frozen by rigor mortis in order to reveal a clue.

Now, where it all goes is pretty silly, and as the movie seems to be ending, we realize Cooper is about to snatch a 130-minute movie from the jaws of a 100-minute movie, and those are real problems. But sometimes the journey is enough, even if the destination isn’t quite what we’d hoped for.

The Pale Blue Eye is on Netflix January 6th.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.