The whodunit is having a moment in Hollywood, and it’s not hard to figure out why.
There’s a certain comfort in watching an intricately crafted mystery be solved in real time by an experienced detective, those caught in the middle of it or both. Last year, viewers had the opportunity to check out Hercule Poirot’s latest exploits in “Death on the Nile,” Benoit Blanc and his folksy Southern drawl in “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” and a group of paranoid Gen Zers slowly descending into madness in “Bodies Bodies Bodies.”
On Friday, whodunit lovers will be given a new mystery to unravel when the Western Pennsylvania-shot thriller “The Pale Blue Eye” hits Netflix. This adaptation of Louis Bayard’s 2003 novel of the same name revels in the bleakness of its Edgar Allan Poe-inspired world while still gifting viewers with a wild web to untangle and a grizzled detective to guide them along this gothic-tinged journey.
While the accent work is spectacularly silly and the practicalities of how the story plays out can probably be picked apart with relative ease, “The Pale Blue Eye” is a well-executed whodunit that excels thanks to a combination of style, mood and two fantastic central performances.
Western Pennsylvania stands in for New York state’s Hudson Valley circa 1830 in “The Pale Blue Eye.” The film finds Detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) being summoned to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point after a cadet there was allegedly murdered. He ends up partnering with a young Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling), a West Point cadet himself, to figure out what’s actually afoot here.
Along the way, Landor and Poe come across a cavalcade of colorful characters. The most notable suspects end up being the Marquis family, consisting of campus doctor Daniel (Toby Jones); his wife, Julia (Gillian Anderson); his cadet son, Artemus (Harry Lawtey); and his sickly daughter, Lea (Lucy Boynton).
Director Scott Cooper did an admirable job adapting the melancholic horror of Poe’s writing into a visual medium. Snow covers the ground, the sky is usually gray, and fog seems to magically appear whenever someone enters the woods surrounding West Point. It’s unmistakably a Poe-adjacent project, right down to at least one pointed shot of a crowing raven and other Easter eggs that hark back to his many literary endeavors.
That aesthetic helps create an atmosphere of constant dread that never lets up. It quickly becomes apparent that something strange is going on at West Point, especially given the increasing number and gruesomeness of crimes taking place there. Though stifling at times, Cooper’s steady hand maintains a consistently foreboding tone that lives up to its implications as the film begins to give away its secrets.
As Landor dives deeper into the depths of West Point depravity, he encounters everything from precisely removed internal organs to ciphers in need of decoding to evidence of occult activity. Most of the pieces fit together well, though holes can be poked in some of the more out-there turns the story takes. Your mileage on its biggest narrative swings may vary, but the results are always entertaining at minimum.
It’s worth mentioning that the cast of “The Pale Blue Eye” is dotted with British actors all trying to approximate a mid-1800s American accent. Most of them are convincing enough, and even the less successful attempts are more amusing than detrimental. Everyone involved gets an “A” for effort, if nothing else.
Bale’s Landor is a man with a tragic past and a keen mind for cracking even the most difficult cases. He doesn’t tip his hand often, but the moments of vulnerability Landor displays between Sherlock Holmesian bouts of brilliance betray someone who cares quite a bit about his work and the people he’s trying to help.
Landor and Poe make for a riveting pair. Their interactions mostly involve Poe delivering long soliloquies as Landor looks on bemusedly and only occasionally offers his own laser-targeted insight. Melling goes toe to toe with the Oscar-winning actor and makes his young, eager Poe a compelling figure outside his famous name. “The Pale Blue Eye” is a true two-hander that is at its best when Bale and Melling are on screen.
The actors portraying the Marquis family all play them fairly straight while revealing just a hint of something lying underneath the surface. The standout among that group is Anderson, who seems to be having the time of her life flying off the handle periodically as the overly performative Julia. Robert Duvall also provides a brief but fun turn as supernatural expert Jean Pepe.
This isn’t the kind of movie where Pittsburghers will be able to recognize too much of their haunting grounds. Westminster College graduates can appreciate how their alma mater stands in for 1830 West Point, and Laurel Highlands residents may get excited about how the Compass Inn Museum in Laughlintown is featured. Keep an eye out during an early tavern scene for cameos by newly sworn-in Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. John Fetterman and his wife, Gisele Fetterman.
“The Pale Blue Eye” is a strong addition to the pantheon of cinematic whodunits. Even the parts that feel slightly undercooked don’t take away from an overall gripping film that’s elevated by shrewd direction and powerhouse performances from Bale and Melling.
Poe fans: Your time is nigh. Rejoice!