Grab a jacket or blanket before watching Netflix’s gripping “The Pale Blue Eye.” I don’t care if you’re in a warm place anyway. You can be on the surface of the sun and still feel cold watching it.
Set during a brutal winter in upstate New York in 1830, this icy film will gnash your teeth with snowy landscapes, flickering candles and howling winds. Even lovers playing in bed are fully clothed. The only thing that will stir the blood here is a murder scene.
In fact, it’s not just the murder that brought Augustus Landor, a retired New York City police officer with superior detective skills, to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point this winter. Yes, a student was found hanging from a tree on campus. But someone stole her heart too.
To solve the case, Landor, played by Christian Bale with the quiet intensity that is his hallmark with his impressive beard, enlists the help of one of the students, a strange kind of soldier. That’s when things get even weirder: Edgar Allan Poe, a cadet, up-and-coming eerie poet who has actually spent time at West Point if not as an undercover detective.
“The man you’re looking for is a poet,” says Poe, played by the equally intense Harry Melling, who once played the villain Dudley Dursley in the “Harry Potter” series. Poe realizes that the heart is just a muscle, but its symbolic value is crucial to solving the case.
It takes its name from a line in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and the source of this movie is Louis Bayard’s novel of the same name. Director and screenwriter Scott Cooper escalates the tension with a series of seemingly unrelated clues – a piece of note, an undecorated military jacket, some animals gutted.
This is a movie that is wonderfully time and place, where you hear creaking wooden floorboards and owls chirping and darkness covers everything. You feel the 1830s and the greasy, messy hair and heavy wool uniforms. At one point, apparently not cold enough, we visit an ice house.
As our two protagonists – a grumpy, tragic detective and a romantic, hyper-intellectual poet – reveal each other’s secrets, the R-rank whodunit unfortunately turns into an occult. Poe falls in love with a classmate’s sister – he gives his heart, you know? – and she may be letting love blind her. But maybe the detective isn’t telling us everything we need to know either.
Aside from all the cold drama of pale people, there’s also a little meta twist. We learn that the leaders of the military academy wanted the detective to fix this as soon as possible because of the heat from Congress. Look closely and see if you catch Pennsylvania Senator-elected John Fetterman and his wife on a cameo in a tavern. Most of the shooting was done in their state.
There are also some talented people in the cast that you might miss—Robert Duvall plays an occultist, Gillian Anderson plays an arrogant mother-in-law, and Charlotte Gainsbourg plays the interest in Landor. It’s almost arrogant to deploy a talent of this level so quietly.
There are a few weird jumps in the movie, and it seems to come to a fiery conclusion—some warmth at the end, oh my God—but it’s the wrong ending. A much better one awaits you, which is unexpected and very, very satisfying. Hold on until the end.
“The Pale Blue Eye”, a Netflix release, was rated R for “some violent content and gory imagery”. Duration: 130 minutes. three stars out of four.
R’s MPAA definition: Restricted. Requires under 17, accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Mark Kennedy at: http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits