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Another Sturdy Collaboration Between Christian Bale & Director Scott Cooper

Jan 23, 2023

If you believe Christian Bale is one of our finest working actors, then you must make sense of his continued collaboration with writer/director Scott Cooper. Their latest joint, Netflix’s “The Pale Blue Eye,” marks a trinity of team-ups for Bale and Cooper. The only directors he’s worked with this much are marquee names like Christopher Nolan and David O. Russell.
The nature of Bale’s interest comes into more precise focus in this Romantic-era mystery, where he headlines as Augustus Landor, a detective tasked with finding the culprit of some gruesome murders plaguing the nascent U.S. Military Academy. “The Pale Blue Eye” allows Bale to showcase a wide range of his dynamic talent within a single role. As a process-minded rationalist, he can show his coiled control and measured authority in a naturalistic manner. When rueing over the fragility of life, he gets to shed tender light on the internal bruising of his psyche.
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These revelatory moments of vulnerability in which Bale also shines too often get drowned out by the more explosive demonstrations of physicality and fury that have defined his star image. When Landor’s agitation grows, Cooper finds room for rage to bubble up from that angrier, edgier Bale. But it’s a component, not the usual ceiling for the actor in “The Pale Blue Eye.” To declare it among the “best” in a formidable body of work for Christian Bale might be a stretch, but this reteaming with Cooper produces one of the purest distillations of his prodigious talents.
Such skillfulness translates nicely into the character, too. As his newest benefactors point out when introducing Landor to the audience with some exposition, the investigator has a history of solving some brutal crimes using his inquisitive brain. Yet it’s his internal torture following the recent disappearance of his daughter that proves his most valuable tool of motivation in this particular scenario. As his soon-to-be sidekick points out, the very nature of the dismembering meant to rip the heart from the chest strikes a chord of literary resonance.
How fitting for such an observation to come from the mouth of Harry Melling’s young E.A. Poe. (That’s Edgar Allan, of course.) “The Pale Blue Eye” fictionalizes the real-world education of the famed poet, who proclaims he learns more about observing humanity from his perch in a bar than any classroom setting. As a West Point cadet, he can provide Landor with a boots-on-the-ground view of any suspects among his ranks. Recognizing a fellow intellect who remains uncowed by the macabre nature of the murders, the detective enlists Poe’s help to ferret out the occult-inclined enemy within.
Bale plays their budding relationship as a cocktail of surrogate parenting and professional mentorship, a dynamic that keeps the film feeling limber and loose as their investigation progresses. Cooper’s screenplay, adapted from a novel of the same name by Louis Bayard, mercifully never stoops so low as to create a superhero origin story to tickle the fancy of English majors. Poe’s legacy informs the film without overwhelming it. No winks or Easter eggs prove necessary to show how an imagined story correlates with an inclination toward morbidity and beauty in his poetry.
The film loses some tightly-wound tension as it expands its purview to that of a wider ensemble piece in the second half. While Bale and Melling’s turns remain grounded in grit and grace, Cooper cannot exert such control over the performances of the Marquis family that take on outsized importance in the investigation. From the moment matriarch Julia (Gillian Anderson) enters the story at yet another soldier’s funeral, the vibe shifts. It’s as if Anderson kept her campy effect from the last costume-heavy period piece she did – Hulu’s “The Great.” Her two children, Lea (Lucy Boynton) and cadet Artemis (Harry Lawtey) hew somewhat closer to the film’s overall tone, yet each — particularly rising talent Lawtey— remains underused and underdeveloped.
“The Pale Blue Eye” works best when Cooper lets it be a two-hander between Landor and Poe. Iron sharpens iron as the two men push themselves down fruitful paths of deductive reasoning. The game of twisted allegiances, false partnerships, and premature resolutions makes for a wicked mystery that continues unfolding in riveting ways. But as some semblance of a resolution emerges, Cooper shows his hand. It was never really about the murders. It was about these two men, and the shifting balance of power between them as Poe’s analytical acumen matures. While perhaps it lacks the clarity of language that marks the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Cooper finds poetry in his own way. [B]

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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