In a grim murder-mystery, Christian Bale's character is hired to find a killer, with the help of a young Edgar Allan Poe, in Scott Cooper's thriller The Pale Blue Eye (now available on Netflix).
Based on the novel by Louis Bayard, the tone for the film is set by a quote from the macabre writer, poet Poe: "The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?"
That famous quote from the story "The Premature Burial" leads us to the West Point U.S. military academy in 1830, where a young cadet has been found hanged, and his heart was carved out from his chest. Upon investigation, the cuts were done in a way to ensure the heart was preserved, with a portion of a note left as a piece of evidence.
That's where Bale's character Augustus Landor comes in, a detective whose wife died and his daughter has been missing. He has been hired to come to the school to investigate this death, evolving to dead animals and eventually a lesson on satanic rituals.
Landor finds an unlikely partner is Poe, played by Harry Melling, a cadet at the academy.
“It begins with Landor looking at Poe skeptically, thinking he’s something of a fool, not thinking he's trustworthy at all and he's a character who's destined for nobody to listen to him whatsoever,” Bale told Yahoo Canada. “Nobody really does at West Point, he doesn't fit in at all.”
“But Landor comes to recognize this acute intelligence and great depth of soul within Poe. He sees through the performance that Poe has to the man underneath, and they come to make a very good duo. Poe becomes indispensable to Landor.”
For Melling, who some may recognize as Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter franchise, being able to develop that dynamic with Bale was a "joy."
“I think Poe needs Landor, certainly to give him a sense of belonging and to give him a sense of home," Melling said. "I think that's the thing that Poe’s searched his entire life for, was this sense of home and belonging."
"It was just everyday working with Christian, who's the most generous of actors, to work out what this relationship was, it was a real joy.”
'This is a man who's trying to invent his identity'
While much of this story is around the mysterious investigation into a possible murderer, it's also an origin story of Edgar Allan Poe. While the famed writer is often described as quite mysterious and odd, The Pale Blue Eye is an exploration into what made him that way, what events could occur that would shape his approach to poetry and literature.
“I think people have a very fixed idea about who Edgar Allan Poe is and so it's really exciting to try and work out, what were the events in his life that maybe got him to that place,” Melling explained. “I think that's very much what Louis Bayard, who wrote the novel, and what Scott Cooper were exploring in terms of, who is this Poe.”
“Can he afford to be more charming? Is he trying to find his feet? What is this performance he keeps doing? Why is he obsessed with telling everyone his latest poem? All of that territory was fascinating, because you're kind of exploring the idea of, this is a man who's trying to invent his identity.”
Filmmaker Scott Cooper also depicts a version of a young Poe that is a lot more witty and humorous than how he has generally been viewed.
“The events that take place in this film, the themes that course through its narrative, ultimately motivate him to become the writer that he became," Cooper said. "So that was more interesting to me, to take someone who is warm and humorous and witty, and prone to poetic and romantic musings, and then over the course of the film does he become the writer he became."
Christian Bale, Robert Duvall, the most selective actors in the industry
A particularly exciting part of The Pale Blue Eye is the presence of the iconic Robert Duvall, who plays a Jean Pepe, a Tolstoy-esque historian of occults and satanic traditions that Landor goes to for advice on his investigation.
Cooper has a very personal connection to Duvall, who he describes as a "second father" to him. It began when they worked together as actors, including the Calgary-filmed Broken Trail, and their relationship became so close that Cooper even got married on Duvall's estate. Yhey now speak two to three times a week.
This is also a bit of a Newsies reunion, with both Bale and Duvall having worked together in the 1992 Disney musical film.
“I would say that Christian and Robert Duvall are probably the most selective, well and Jeff Bridges, of the actors that we have,” Cooper said. “They rarely do things unless they want to, or something compels them to, because they've played so many characters in their illustrious careers.”
“[Robert Duvall] read this screenplay and he said, I want to play [Jean Pepe]. That's the part I want to play. I was so thankful, and for someone who's 92 years-old, to have him in another film was just really incredibly meaningful for me and for Christian, quite frankly, and he loved Harry Melling.”
'I think he tries to wrestle more with chaos'
With this being the third film Bale has done with Cooper, the actor highlighted that what makes the filmmaker a particularly attractive collaborator is how he approaches the chaos of a story.
“The first thing you have to do as an actor is try to understand a director, what they're going for, what their style is, and adapt to them,” Bale explained. “Ethics of revenge are something that had been very dominant in the three films that we have made.”
“You get one director who looks at life and the chaos of it and the randomness of it, and they say, great the way to deal with it is you surrender to it, you accept it, and you'll get a certain type of film coming out of that. Then with Scott, I think he tries to wrestle more with chaos. He likes to be precise. He likes to articulate himself well, and he likes to try to find order out of this chaos, and to really strive to find an answer. I know that about him and I enjoy that."
When it comes to Cooper's precision as a filmmaker, an example of that is in the breadcrumbs left throughout the film that lead to the result of this investigation.
“This is a film that requires careful viewing and probably will be all the richer upon a second viewing, all of the breadcrumbs are there,” Cooper said. “Every scene, every character that interacts in the film, or is alone, everything is leading to the reveal.”
“When one happens to see this film, a second time you'll say, oh my gosh, how did I not put this together? It was all there. But it took a great deal of consideration and a great deal of detail from everybody involved, from screenplay to the actors, to production design, props, everything was a real team effort.”
We're certainly on board with Cooper's recommendation to give The Pale Blue Eye a second viewing. This film is quite striking in its visuals, with the twists and turn in the plot keeping you on your toes, but it's easy to miss some of the clever clues.