THE PALE BLUE EYE (2022) – Haunting Period Piece Thriller Mesmerizes from Start to Finish

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THE PALE BLUE EYE (2022) is a beautifully shot period piece thriller by writer/director Scott Cooper that tells the haunting story of a killer on the loose at West Point Academy, a killer who likes to slice out the heart of their victims.

But it’s more than just a serial killer story. It’s also a detective story, as the unconventional Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) is hired to solve the case, and he drafts as his assistant a young cadet by the name of Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling). It has as its prevalent theme the attachments we keep with our deceased loved ones, as most of the characters are influenced and oftentimes haunted by memories, spirits, what have you, of those loved ones who have gone before them. And it all takes place on the snowy West Point campus in 1830. It’s both a feast for the eyes and for the senses, as this atmospheric thriller now streaming on Netflix is definitely worth a look.

Christian Bale plays Augustus Landor, a man whose wife died after a long illness, and whose daughter ran away and never returned. He is a somber man who lives alone, yet each night when he’s on the case he has conversations with his deceased wife, who helps him with his deductions. He is hired by Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) and Superintendent Thayer (Timothy Spall) to find out who is killing their cadets and cutting their hearts out. Landor doesn’t like the Academy, as he believes it robs men of their humanity, but he agrees to take the case.

He is soon approached by a young cadet named Edgar Allan Poe who offers his opinions as to who he thinks the murderer is and tells Landor he should be looking for a poet. Landor likes Poe and asks him to keep his eyes and ears open around the campus. The two detectives are both drawn to Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones) and his family, which includes his wife, his son, who is also a cadet there, and their daughter Lea (Lucy Boynton). There is something about them that troubles Landor, and he can’t put his finger on it. Further complicating matters is when Poe befriends Lea, he finds himself falling in love with her, eventually writing his poem “Lenore” for her.

Tensions rise as the murders continue, and Landor and Poe are no closer to finding the killer, but eventually their painstaking detective work pays off, and they begin to formulate answers.

I absolutely loved THE PALE BLUE EYE, but admittedly, I’m a sucker for period piece thrillers, and even though THE PALE BLUE EYE isn’t really a horror movie, although the argument can be made that it is, it did remind me enough of the classic Hammer Films horror movies of yesteryear that I enjoyed this one from start to finish.

Does it have one plot twist too many? Perhaps. Just when you think the film is over, it adds another element, another twist, that I don’t think the story needed, but when all was said and done, it still worked for me. I bought it. And I bought the characters’ reactions to it.

I really enjoy the work of Scott Cooper. His previous films include OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013), an unheralded crime drama that was my favorite movie that year, and HOSTILES (2017), a hard hitting western. Both movies also starred Christian Bale.

Cooper is a terrific writer. Here, he adapted his screenplay from the book by Louis Bayard, and he includes riveting, realistic dialogue throughout. The characters here are all fleshed out, and the plot hooks you in immediately and never lets go. Regarding the characters, it helps that Cooper also has a fantastic cast here, but his writing is still superior.

He scores just as highly as a director. The opening shot of the movie, a hanged body of man dangling strangely, as if he is sitting, starts the film with a haunting image and honestly never lets up. If you like visual thrillers, with creative direction and eerie photography, you’ll love Cooper’s work here with THE PALE BLUE EYE.

Christian Bale is always a pleasure to watch. He fully becomes the characters he plays, which enables him to portray so many different kinds of characters, a trait that makes him such an exceptional actor. We just saw him in AMSTERDAM (2022) as a World War I veteran and doctor in David O. Russell’s quirky comedy drama. He was the best part of the inferior Marvel movie THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022) as its main villain, Gorr. He was just as memorable in his previous four movies, FORD V FERRARI (2019), VICE (2018) where he played Dick Cheney and was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his work, HOSTILES (2017), and THE BIG SHORT (2015), where he was also nominated for an Oscar. He won an Oscar for his supporting role in THE FIGHTER (2010), he played Batman in the Christopher Nolan DARK KNIGHT trilogy, and on and on we could go. Bale is one of the best movie actors working today.

Here, he plays Augustus Landor as a man haunted by his past, by his deceased wife, and missing daughter. He’s also an effective detective, but he is going about solving the case with an obvious heavy weight on his chest from things we don’t know fully about, other than the loss he feels and the hurt that goes along with it. As you would expect, Bale nails this role, and is captivating to watch throughout this movie.

And if that’s not enough, Harry Melling is just as captivating as Edgar Allan Poe. In fact, as much as I like Bale, I enjoyed Melling more here, because I enjoyed watching his take on Poe as a character and bringing the poet/author to life. He’s wonderful. Melling is also a terrific actor. He’s known to Harry Potter fans as the irritating Dudley Dursley, but years later as an adult, he has really stood out in a host of supporting roles. Melling has been memorable in the Netflix TV series THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (2022) and in the Netflix movie THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (2020). He’s also appeared in THE OLD GUARD (2020), THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR’S CUT (2017) and THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016). Here, Melling is phenomenal as Edgar Allan Poe.

Interestingly, Melling is the grandson of actor Patrick Troughton, who is famous for playing Doctor Who in the 1960s. Troughton also appeared in Hammer Films, such as SCARS OF DRACULA (1970) with Christopher Lee, and in the Ray Harryhausen classic JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963).

And in another Hammer Films connection, Toby Jones, who plays Dr. Daniel Marquis, and who’s one of my favorite character actors working today, is the son of actor Freddie Jones, who made his debut as the tormented creation of Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969). No wonder this one has such a strong Hammer Films vibe! As he always is, Toby Jones is excellent here as Dr. Marquis, playing a man, like Landor, haunted by a family secret.

Simon McBurney as Captain Hitchcock and Timothy Spall as Superintendent Thayer both stand out as cranky and crotchety officers. Lucy Boynton makes for a lovely yet troubled love interest for Poe as Lea, and as the story progresses, she becomes a much more integral character.

There are also a couple of major acting veterans in the cast. Gillian Anderson, known to X-FILES fans as Dana Scully, is fantastic here as Mrs. Julia Marquis. She gets some of the best scenes in the movie, especially the ones she shares with Christian Bale. The acting here, especially with Anderson and Bale, is so precise the characters almost leap off the screen. They are created with such precision.

And Robert Duvall also has a small role as Jean Pepe, a man who helps provide some historical information for Landor when he needs it.

I found THE PALE BLUE EYE to be an absolutely mesmerizing movie. I loved its story, its characters, and its overall mystery. I also enjoyed its theme of communication with the dead. As Poe explains in one scene, where he’s talking about his communications with his deceased mother, as he feels a connection with her and hears her voice often, in general he says, people forget their loved ones who have passed on before them, and these deceased spirits miss being remembered and reach out to the living in angst. But for those like himself who listen to the voices, much wisdom and caring is shared.

I love the work of Scott Cooper. His writing here, with the plot, the characters, and the dialogue, is superior, and his direction nearly flawless as he creates an eerie visual gem. And the cast, led by Christian Bale and Harry Melling, is a joy to watch.

THE PALE BLUE EYE is a masterful period piece thriller that will keep you glued to the screen, especially during a cold, winter evening.

I give it three and a half stars.

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RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

WIDOWS (2018) – Stellar Cast, Contrived Plot, Mixed Results

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WIDOWS (2018) is writer/director Steve McQueen’s first movie since his Oscar-winning 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013), and it’s a rather odd choice.

It’s an action thriller that has its moments, helped along by a stellar cast, but taken as a whole, it’s a bit too contrived to be all that believable.

In WIDOWS, three women discover that their husbands were criminals after the three men die in a police shoot-out and subsequent car explosion. Veronica (Viola Davis) learns this the hard way when she’s visited by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a man running for alderman in her Chicago neighborhood who tells her that her husband stole three million dollars from him, and he wants the money back. He gives her three weeks to get he money, or else his henchmen will kill her.

In her search for answers, Veronica discovers her deceased husband’s private notebook which details his past jobs and his next job, a heist that is worth millions. So, Veronica assembles the two other wives, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and tells them that if they pull off this job, they’ll have enough money to pay off Manning and thus save their lives, plus millions left over for themselves.  Linda and Alice agree, and the widows spring into action.

There’s a lot going on in WIDOWS, most of which I liked, but unfortunately, the weakest part of the story is the main one, the one with the widows.  And the reason for this is in large part because I never really believed that these women, who appear to be rather intelligent folks, would actually do this. I get it that they have nowhere else to turn and are desperate to save their lives, as it’s clear that the authorities in Chicago are of no help to them. At one point, Veronica says she’ll go to the police, but Manning tells her that the police don’t care and that they are glad her criminal husband is dead. So, I get this part. I just never believed it. It’s the most contrived part of the entire movie, unfortunately.

The surrounding storylines, especially the political ones, work much better.

The current alderman Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall) in public speaks of how much he has helped the downtrodden Chicago neighborhood he serves yet we see him in private as a racist bully. He’s not seeking re-election. Instead, that honor goes to his son Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) who says he disdains his father’s style of politics and wants to make a true difference, and yet his actions show that he’s not much better than his father.

Then there’s Jamal Mannning, the black man running against Jack Mulligan, who supposedly represents his neighborhood because he’s lived there his whole life and understands the needs of his people, but yet he runs a criminal organization that is just as bad and even more brutal than Mulligan.

There are layers here, and they make for the most intriguing parts of the story.

The widows storyline works best when showing these women with their backs against the wall. Indeed, one of the strengths of the screenplay by Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn, who wrote GONE GIRL (2014),  based on a 1980s British TV series of the same name, is that it lays bare the pain and vulnerabilities of these women. In one telling scene, a disillusioned Veronica admits that with her husband gone she has nothing, not even her home, which has been lost. Likewise, Linda watches as the store she thought she owned is taken away from her because her husband lied to her about paying the mortgage on the building.

This part of the story works well. The trouble I had is when it makes the leap from despondent women to criminal women. I expected these women to react in a smarter way than this.

The cast in WIDOWS is exceedingly deep and talented.

Viola Davis turns in a strong performance as Veronica. She’s at her best when showing how much pain she feels having lost her husband Harry, played by Liam Neeson.

There’s also another subplot where it’s revealed via flashback that Veronica and Harry’s son had been shot and killed in a police shooting during a routine traffic stop. WIDOWS throws a lot at its audience, sometimes too much. Had Steve McQueen chosen to focus more on one aspect of this story, the widows perhaps, the movie would have been better for it.

But back to Viola Davis.  She shows both frightened vulnerability and steely resolve, but once more, had she resolved to do something else other than attempt a million dollar heist, the results would have been more convincing

Michelle Rodriguez is fine as Linda, although it’s nothing we haven’t seen Rodriguez do before.

Far more interesting than either Davis or Rodriguez is Elizabeth Debicki as Alice, who at first comes off like a clichéd ditzy blonde and as such faces harsh treatment from even Veronica, but she’s not stupid at all. In fact, she’s incredibly intelligent and resourceful. Her subplot in which she’s involved in a paid relationship with a man named David (Lukas Haas) is one of the more intriguing subplots in the film. The scene where she chides David for insinuating that he’s in control of her happiness, and she pushes back saying that no, it’s her life and she makes that determination, is one of the better moments in the movie.

I’ve seen Debicki in a bunch of other movies, films like THE GREAT GATSBY (2013) where she played Jordan Baker, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E (2015) where she played the villain, and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 (2017), but by far this is the best performance I’ve seen her deliver yet.

Brian Tyree Henry is very good as Jamal Manning, the cut-throat criminal who brands himself as the best hope for his people but whose interests are clearly more about attaining power than helping anyone.

Even better is Daniel Kaluuya as Jatemme Manning, Jamal’s brother. The star of GET OUT (2017) makes for one of the most brutal and sinister enforcer types I’ve seen in a while. His performance here was one of my favorite parts of WIDOWS.

Robert Duvall is excellent as always, here playing racist alderman Tom Mulligan who in spite of his political mob boss tactics seems to believe that he’s doing right for the people of his neighborhoods.

Colin Farrell is just as good as Mulligan’s son Jack, who’s running for alderman to keep his family’s name in politics. It’s a position Jack seems to hate, and Farrell does a nice job playing Jack as a conflicted yet not very admirable man. The scene where he tells his father he’s looking forward to the days when he’s dead and gone, is a pretty potent moment in the film, well acted by Duvall and Farrell.

Cynthia Erivo, who we just saw in BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018) plays Belle, a young woman who among other jobs babysits Linda’s children, and who the widows hire to be their getaway driver. It’s a spunky determined performance.

Jon Michael Hill stands out in a small role as the Reverend Wheeler, the pastor of Chicago’s biggest congregation, a man who’s courted by both Manning and Mulligan, and he plays coy with both of them as to who he’ll support.

Jackie Weaver steals a couple of scenes as Alice’s overbearing mother Agnieska.  Weaver of course was so memorable playing Bradley Cooper’s mother in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

The cast here is so deep that major actors even play characters who are killed off in the opening moments of the movie, most notably Liam Neeson, who plays Veronica’s husband Harry. And as the story moves forward, Veronica learns some rather unsavory things about her late husband that calls into question the kind of man she thought he was.

Jon Bernthal also plays one of the thieves, who unlike Neeson, doesn’t get any flashback time, and so he’s on-screen for about two seconds before he’s done in.

There was a lot about WIDOWS that I liked. I enjoyed the full canvas that director Steve McQueen was working with here, and the story he was telling as a whole, but again, for me, the biggest disappointment was where the widows specific storyline ultimately went.

I expected these women to rebel against their deceased husbands, to attempt do something better, but that’s not what happens. Instead of trying to learn from their husbands’ mistakes and improve upon them, they simply become their husbands. They become thieves and thugs.

And unlike their husbands, whose fate seemed to be tied into their actions, the widows here suffer no repercussions. It’s all happily ever after, which in my book is one more strike against this one in terms of credibility.

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