The Pale Blue Eye: a dark investigative thriller, between gothic and esotericism

In the increasingly varied and changing panorama of streaming, it arrives almost quietly The Pale Blue Eye – The West Point Murdersnew Netflix original film by Scott Cooper based on the novel of the same name by Louis Bayard. A rather bizarre project by today’s standards, with a budget of around 72 million dollars and a cast full of stars (the protagonist Christian Balebut also Harry Melling, Gillian Anderson, Lucy Boynton, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Toby Jones, Timothy Spall and Robert Duvall), at the service of a mysterious and dark thriller set in the United States of 1830, with rarefied atmospheres and characterized by a plot capable of involving even a young Edgar Allen Poe. A project that could hardly have been profitable in theaters, which finds its raison d’être in the dimension of streaming, as well as the possibility of reaching a huge audience scattered all over the world.

On the one hand, we therefore welcome an ambitious and proudly genre work with satisfaction and curiosity. At the same time, the risk of these operations aimed at the bulimic and diversified streaming audience is always that of giving life to a work forced to please almost everyone and consequently unable to fully satisfy a large portion of the public. Even with a well-made package and despite suggestive and well-crafted atmospheres, too The Pale Blue Eye falls into this trap.

The Pale Blue Eye: a dark investigative thriller, between gothic and esotericism

The Pale Blue Eye 2
Cr. Scott Garfield/Netflix © 2022

We are in 1830, when the West Point Military Academy is shaken by the macabre discovery of the battered corpse of a cadet. To investigate the case, Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) arrives, a former detective who retired following a serious family bereavement. Landor must move with absolute discretion, since the military does not want bad publicity. However, the case is decidedly ambiguous and intricate, since the heart was mysteriously extracted from the body of the deceased. The young cadet Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling), passionate about poetry and characterized by a strong deductive intelligence. While violence and blood continue to spread, the two become familiar and continue to investigate the mystery, which also embraces esotericism and the supernatural.

Since Crazy heartstory of the emotional and artistic ups and downs of a country singer who allowed a Jeff Bridges to conquer his first well-deserved Oscar, Scott Cooper’s cinema has always been out of time and out of the fashions of the moment. We also saw it with the gangster movie Black Mass – The ultimate gangster and with the atypical western Hostiles – Hostileswhich despite a lukewarm response at the box office demonstrated the director’s ability to cross and reinvent genres. The Pale Blue Eye sublimates this attitude of Scott Cooper, presenting itself from the very first minutes as a curious hybrid between detective story, noir and thriller, cloaked in a typically gothic atmosphere and characterized by peculiar dynamics of the buddy movie, with two poles apart protagonists forced to coexist and open up to each other in the name of a common goal.

A work poised between genres

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Cr. Scott Garfield/Netflix © 2022

Even if the subversive and at times almost parodic intent of The Pale Blue Eye it is clear and commendable, the story soon ends up focusing more on the psychology of the characters than on the underlying mystery, thus losing its edge. To accentuate this ineffective dynamic is an insistent verbosity, applied to characters who for various reasons are not convincing. Augustus Landor fits in the wake of great detectives in the history of fiction such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, however lacking the charisma necessary to make the character interesting. The young Edgar Allan Poe, on the other hand, is little more than a caricature in the service of welcome tributes to the career of the famous writer (including a revealing heart) and a story that also transforms into a sort of origin story, focusing on the founding elements of the subsequent master’s work.

With the help of the cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, Scott Cooper focuses entirely on sinister foggy and snowy landscapes, to be contrasted with interiors in which the colors are instead increasingly warm and enveloping. In 128 minutes of story, there is no shortage of romantic turns, red herrings and twists, but the potentially explosive mixture available to the director unfortunately turns out to be fireproof. In fact, we are faced with a work so poised between genres as to become uncertain and wavering, and which despite the many brilliant ideas (most of which deriving from the bewildered personality of Edgar Allan Poe) does everything possible to impose an always less effective and justifiable.

To further weaken The Pale Blue Eye then comes a telephoned and didactic ending, which once again reduces the mystery and suggestion to a minimum in the name of redundant and invasive dialogues as never before in Cooper’s cinema.

The Pale Blue Eye: The Power of the Word

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Cr. Scott Garfield/Netflix © 2022

Of course, not everything is to be thrown away. In fact, we are faced with a remarkable actor sector, with Gillian Anderson, Lucy Boynton and Charlotte Gainsbourg capable of portraying interesting female characters; to a refined staging of a decidedly superior level to the visual dullness that distinguishes the original productions of the platforms; to the desire to explore the contrast between the strict rules of the military world and the tormented personalities of the protagonists. However, the aftertaste of a missed opportunity remains, given by the paradox of a work that rests on the figure of a master of the word, drowned precisely by the overabundance of dialogues and explanations.

The Pale Blue Eye – The West Point Murders is available from January 6 on Netflix.

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The Pale Blue Eye: a dark investigative thriller, between gothic and esotericism