Producers: Scott Cooper, Christian Bale, Tyler Thompson and John Lesher   Director: Scott Cooper   Screenplay: Scott Cooper   Cast: Christian Bale, Harry Melling, Gillian Anderson, Lucy Boynton, Robert Duvall, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Toby Jones, Harry Lawtey, Simon McBurney, Hadley Robinson, Timothy Spall, Joey Brooks, Brennan Cook, Gideon Glick, Fred Hechinger, Matt Helm, Jack Irving, Steven Maier, Orlagh Cassidy, Scott Anderson, Mathias Goldstein and Charlie Tahan   Distributor: Netflix

Grade: C

Long on atmosphere but short on logic and excitement, Scott Cooper’s brooding adaptation of Louis Bayard’s 2003 historical mystery wastes an exceptional cast on a tale that grows increasingly silly as it plods to an exasperating conclusion.

The title “The Pale Blue Eye” is a phrase lifted from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and along with numerous other breadcrumbs those two anatomical references point to the solution of the convoluted whodunit in which Poe himself is a major character.  He plays second fiddle, however, to Augustus Landor (Christian Bale), the investigator at the center of the plot.

Landor was a celebrated detective in early nineteenth-century New York City, but retired into dour solitude in the Hudson Valley after the disappearance of his daughter Mattie (Hadley Robinson).  In 1830 he’s summoned by Captain Ethan Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) to meet with his superior, Brigadier General Sylvanus Thayer (Timothy Spall), the Superintendent of the nearby West Point Military Academy, and asked to investigate the death of a cadet named Fry (Steven Maier).  Fry was found hanging from a tree; even more gruesomely, his corpse was mutilated, the heart having been cut from his chest.  If not speedily resolved the case could be used by opponents of the academy to shut it down.

Landor, initially nonplussed by Hitchcock’s sudden arrival at his isolated cabin, agrees, and quickly embarrasses campus doctor Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones), who missed several clues during his examination of Fry’s body.  Over time, however, he wins approval from the nervous doctor and his oddly inquisitive wife (Gillian Anderson).  The couple’s children, on the other hand, are more enigmatic.  Their son Artemus (Harry Lawtey), also a West Point cadet, is an arrogant, preening type, while their lovely daughter Lea (Lucy Boynton) is reserved and fragile.

A heavy drinker, Landor frequents the tavern operated by Patsy (Charlotte Gainsbourg), sharing nights with her in bed.  It’s there that he meets Cadet Poe (Harry Melling), an effete outsider among his comrades, and recruits him as an assistant to collect information he’ll be better situated to learn than an outsider.  Poe insinuates himself into the clique headed by Artemus, and becomes infatuated with his sister who, it turns out, suffers from what’s called falling sickness.  He also reports to Landor on two of Artemus’ closest cadet friends, Ballinger (Fred Hechinger) and Stoddard (Joey Brooks).

They will be directly implicated in the turn the narrative takes into supernatural territory, as signs of Satanic ritual in Fry’s death induce Landor to consult an expert in the occult named Jean-Pepe (Robert Duvall, almost unrecognizable under ample face hair) and track down some genealogical clues that, along with a cryptic diary by Fry given him by the dead cadet’s mother (Orlagh Cassidy), leads to the apparent solution to not just Fry’s murder but a couple of others as well.  In the process Poe is barely saved from becoming yet another victim.

Yet with the mystery resolved, however implausibly, the script throws in a final curve as Poe reasons out that Landor’s unearthing of the complicated truth is still not complete.  Devotees of Agatha Christie as well as Poe, and particularly her groundbreaking novel “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” will detect her influence at work here—though in reverse, as it were.

“The Pale Blue Eye” is visually striking, with the grim fortress-like buildings and snowy landscapes confected by production designer Stefania Cella saturated in moody blues by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi; Kasia Walicka-Maimone’s costumes likewise cast a spell, as does Howard Shore’s melancholic score.

But the film never comes alive, remaining throughout limp and inert.  That might seem appropriate given its gloomy subject matter, but Cooper’s penchant for solemn, stately staging, accentuated by Dylan Tichenor’s lethargic editing, drains any suspense from the narrative. 

It also seriously afflicts the performances.  Bale reverts to his grimmest, most mournful mode, rarely exhibiting the intellectual spark that’s supposed to mark Landor.  By contrast Melling, who looks a good deal like the young Poe, is all eager affectation, overdoing the theatrical gestures and vocalism of the character.  After a pose of arrogant prickliness at the start Jones recedes into glum diffidence, while Anderson and Lawtey are both highly mannered and Boynton all twittering frailty.  Spall and McBurney can muster nothing but officious military sneers, but Gainsbourg attempts to add some sultriness to her brief scenes, though without much success.  The less said about Duvall’s feeble cameo the better.

“The Pale Blue Eye” has been handsomely made, but the labored tale it spins probably works better on the page than it does in this ponderous adaptation.