Review: Whodunit ‘The Pale Blue Eye’ chills and satisfies

By | December 22, 2022

Grab a jacket or a blanket before you watch Netflix’s engrossing “The Pale Blue Eye.” I don’t care if you’re already in a warm place. You could be on the surface of the sun and still feel chilly watching it.

Set during an unrelenting winter in upstate New York in 1830, this frosty movie with snowy vistas, flickering candles and howling winds will get your teeth chattering. Even lovers romping in bed are fully clothed. The only thing to get the blood moving here is a spot of murder.

Actually, it’s no mere killing that brings Augustus Landor, a retired New York City police constable with superior sleuthing skills, to the US Military Academy at West Point on this winter question. Yes, a cadet has died on campus, found hanging from a tree. But someone has also harvested his heart.

To crack the case, Landor, played with trademark taciturn intensity by Christian Bale sporting impressive facial hair, enlists the help of one of the cadets, who is an odd sort of military man. This is when things get weirder: The cadet is future famous macabre poet Edgar Allan Poe, who really did spend time at West Point, though not as an undercover detective.

“The man you’re looking for is a poet,” Poe says, acted by an equally intense Harry Melling, who once played the bad guy Dudley Dursley in the “Harry Potter” franchise. Poe recognizes that a heart is just a muscle, but its symbolic value is crucial to cracking the case.

The title comes from a line in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and the source of this movie is a novel of the same name by Louis Bayard. Director and screenwriter Scott Cooper builds tension with a series of seemingly unconnected clues — a note fragment, a military jacket missing a decoration, some animals disemboweled.

This is a film wonderfully grounded in its time and space, where you hear creaking wooden floorboards and owls hooting and darkness cloaks everything. You feel the 1830s and the greasy, unkempt hair and heavy woolen uniforms. At one point, apparently not cold enough, we visit an ice house.

The R-rated whodunit takes an unfortunate turn into the occult as our two heroes — a gruff, tragic-stricken detective and a romantic, hyper-intellectual poet — uncover each other’s secrets. Poe falls for a classmate’s sister — he gives his heart, get it? — and may be letting love blind him. But perhaps the detective is not telling us all we should know, either.

Aside from all the cold drama by pale people, there’s also a little meta twist. We learn that the leaders of the military academy want the detective to solve this quickly because they’re catching heat from Congress. Look closely and see if you catch Pennsylvania Sen.-elect John Fetterman and his wife in cameos in a tavern. Much of the filming was done in their state.

There are also some talented folks in the cast that you might miss — Robert Duvall plays an expert in the occult, Gillian Anderson is a haughty matriarch, and Charlotte Gainsbourg plays a love interest for Landor. The ability to deploy this level of talent so quietly is almost cheeky.

The film has a few odd jumps and seemingly comes to a fiery conclusion — finally some warmth, good God — but it’s a false ending. A much better one awaits, one that’s unexpected and very, very satisfying. Stay to the end — as long as you’re bundled up.

“The Pale Blue Eye,” a Netflix release, is rated R for “some violent content and bloody images.” Running time: 130 minutes. Three stars out of four.

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MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

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