Edgar Allan Poe is known in the literary world as the imagination behind some of history’s most haunting stories. From “The Pit and the Pendulum” to “The Raven,” Poe’s legacy as one of the great American poets and authors of horror fiction is firmly established. But Poe steps into the spotlight in Scott Cooper’s Netflix adaptation of The Pale Blue Eye, a historical novel by Louis Bayard.
Set in 1830, during the brief time Poe was a cadet at West Point, Bayard’s novel follows retired detective Gus Landor (Christian Bale) as he endeavors to find a killer roaming the snowy academy grounds. He enlists a young cadet named Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Melling) to be his eyes and ears among the soldiers. As the mystery unfolds and Poe and Landor grow closer to their primary suspects, the Marquis family, we find that no one is precisely who they seem to be.
Cooper perfectly captures the chilly terrain of the Hudson Highlands and fills the twisting story with a gothic atmosphere fitting of the poet who walks within the pages. Unfortunately, due to a limited run time and a few pulled punches, Cooper’s adaptation fails to fully consume the heart of Bayard’s dark tail.
Melling is the highlight of the film as the young Poe, with his enchanting southern drawl and giddy love for books. The British actor does a remarkable job bringing Bayard’s effusive text to life, but the film’s two hour duration cannot hope to contain all the joyous interactions with Poe that Bayard packs into his story. The novel’s shifting first person narrative gives us accounts from both Landor’s and Poe’s point of view, providing insight into the young man’s impressive psyche.
Having fallen for the young maiden Lea Marquis (Lucy Boynton), Poe constantly rhapsodizes about his beloved and makes plans to elope with her to a foreign land. In addition to a dreamy moonlit rendezvous between the two lovers in an ornate sleigh, Bayard’s novel gives us a delightful scene in which Poe sneaks out of the academy barracks to accompany Lea to a nearby dinner party. Wearing her uncle’s old uniform and a fake mustache, Poe indulges his dramatic tendencies with a french accent and tales of battlefield bravado, even daring to ask the guests if they’ve heard of a young poet named Poe. When his mustache begins to slip, he refuses to leave Lea’s side and vows to continue with the ruse even if it means sure discovery.
Poe’s lady love (a nod to Poe’s famed muse Lenore) is another character more fully described in Bayard’s novel. Plagued with a falling sickness that would now be called epilepsy, Lea lives with the ever present possibility of her own imminent death. She is drawn to Poe’s macabre fascinations and the two form a close bond in both versions of the story. Due to limited interactions in the film, it’s possible to believe that Lea is simply feigning affection for Poe in preparation for a gruesome sacrifice, but their extended courtship in Bayard’s novel alludes to a deeper connection.
As the mirror of Landor’s departed daughter Mattie (Hadley Robinson), Bayard also develops the relationship between the old detective and Lea, giving him a fatherly affection for the young woman even though he suspects she may be responsible for the theft of the missing heart. Bayard’s novel includes an extended sequence in which Lea begs Landor to stop investigating her brother Artemus (Harry Lawtey) before plunging over a cliff in the midst of a seizure. Landor topples with her and narrowly saves the young woman from falling to her death. Lea’s insistence that he shouldn’t have saved her reveals the depths of her desperation and the severity of her condition, adding empathy to her more sinister actions.
Both versions of the story show Landor discovering that Lea is the culprit as she prepares to sacrifice Poe. Following the advice of her ancestor, a witch hunter named Henri le Clerc, Lea is attempting to heal herself through devilish rituals and has stolen the heart of a hanged man according to le Clerc’s ancient writings. While Cooper implies that she is preparing to cut out Poe’s heart as well, Bayard’s Lea is looking for the blood of a virgin and has targeted Poe due to his romantic naïveté. While Cooper’s Lea does not survive the final sacrifice, Bayard gives her a much more grisly end. The film shows Lea holding the stolen heart as the burning ceiling of the academy’s ice house collapses on her head. Rushing to her side, Artemus is also crushed as the flaming beams land in a heap on top of the devoted siblings. Having been discovered mid-ritual by Landor, Bayard’s Lea attempts to eat Fry’s heart. The decomposing muscle becomes lodged in her throat and Artemus is forced to perform a battlefield tracheotomy to save her life. Not a trained surgeon like his father, Artemus cuts in the wrong place and Lea bleeds to death as he, Landor, and Poe watch on in horror. The ceiling of the icehouse does indeed fall on Artemus cradling her body, but only after this horrifying scene of a brother’s desperate attempts to save his sister.
The novel begins and ends with the narrative of Gus Landor as he contemplates the end of his life and this looping scene foreshadows the twisting path of the story itself. Final scenes reveal that Lea and Artemus did not actually kill anyone. They simply stumbled upon a dead man and took the opportunity to use his body in their rituals. Landor has been the killer all along, murdering the two cadets as revenge for assaulting Mattie. In both versions of the story, the narrative picks up the morning after the first murder. When Landor is summoned to West Point, he believes he is being arrested for the crime. While Bayard does not say this outright, it’s possible to notice Landor’s unease due to the first person narrative structure. Internal dialogue as he unknowingly interviews for the position and his instinct to say, “Gentlemen, I’m your man,” when presumably agreeing to investigate the crime hints at his guilt. Absent a narrator, Cooper is forced to lean on the performance of his actor and though Bale is a master at finding the nuances of a character, it’s not nearly as apparent to the viewer that he may have a darker connection to the crime.
This intimate perspective also gives us a window into Landor’s motivation. While Cooper’s Landor avoids speaking about his daughter, Bayard’s version of the character spends a significant time describing his beloved Mattie to Poe. Cooper does an admirable job depicting Landor’s longing for his lost daughter, but his memories of her are limited to glimpses of the young woman spinning in a beautiful ball gown as well as Landor treasuring a ribbon from her hair and attempting to comfort her in her final days. Bayard describes earlier memories such as their riverside walks, her tendency to cry while reading poetry, and the first time he held the squalling baby in his hands. We feel Landor’s love for his daughter, making his devastation at her death and his dedication for revenge all the more painful.
While the relationship between Landor and Mattie is heartbreaking, it’s his friendship with Poe that provides the emotional core of the story. Cooper’s characters do get on well, but the novel tells of multiple evenings spent as the two men drink, laugh, and discuss thoughts of the larger world. The moment Landor realizes they have both ceased the formalities of addressing each other as “Mr.” feels like crossing a threshold into a warm friendship. Particularly poignant is Landor’s realization that he once saw a performance by Poe’s mother, the famed actress Eliza Poe. The young man’s eagerness to hear every detail about the woman who died when he was a child shows both Landor’s affection for the young man and Poe’s own longing for parental love.
The two also get a visit from another family member in Mr. John Allen, Poe’s adopted father. He is an unpleasant man and cruel to Poe, a real bit of detail from the poet’s life. Landor encounters him after the two friends have had a falling out due to the discovery that Poe has been lying about his background. We feel for Poe as Landor rails against him, listing off the details of a tragic life and we understand why a sensitive young man would want to invent a more exciting past. Shortly after this argument Landor virulently confronts Mr. Allen, finally providing a caring father figure we wish the author could have had in reality.
Cooper’s Poe realizes that Landor is the killer due to similarities in the old detective’s handwriting to that of an incriminating note, but Bayard’s Poe has a much more complex awakening. Making fun use of Poe’s literary catalog, Bayard references the “The Tell-Tale Heart,” by having his fictional poet remember the absence of a second heart in Lea’s possession. This casts new light on her intentions and it is his own pale blue eye that then falls upon Landor. In a poem presumably dictated to him by his mother, Poe notices the letters beginning each line spell out the words “Mathilde died.” This clue causes him to investigate the poor girl’s disappearance and he learns that she has not run off as Landor claims, but threw herself off a cliff in the aftermath of a vicious assault.
While both versions of Poe confront Landor about his deception, Bayard’s characters have a much more heartbreaking exchange. Cooper ends their partnership with Poe burning the incriminating note to protect his friend. Bayard’s Landor hands Poe a gun instead and asks him to end his life. Afraid of a protracted death on the gallows, Landor turns to his friend for help, but Poe refuses to kill the detective he’s come to view as a father. Landor notes that if Mattie had found him, they might have been a family and this, though poignant in the film, hits so much harder given the complexity of the novel’s central relationship. Bayard’s story concludes with Landor following Mattie’s path to the cliffs implying that he throws himself into the icy waters to meet her, while Cooper’s Landor simply releases her ribbon into a passing breeze. It’s a bittersweet ending to what has been an exceedingly dark tail.
Scott Cooper’s version of The Pale Blue Eye touches this darkness, but is unable to fully delve into the depths of tragedy within Louis Bayard’s pages.