This detective film, set in the early 1800’s, has a very slow, deliberate pace for a movie billed as a thriller. But Christian Bale and Henry Melling’s intense performances working together to solve the crime becomes is intriguing.
Writer/Director Scott Cooper gives just enough gory details to keep you curious as it slowly plods along. There are themes of murder, death, illness and the occult running through the script with psychological aspects to the investigations. Late in the film, Cooper suddenly picks up the pace with several twists, almost too rapidly tying up all the loose ends at the very end.
Widower, Augustus “Gus” Landor, (Bale) is called in to solve the grisly murders of cadets at West Point, which in the 1830’s was a young institution. This master detective from New York City is there to investigate the murder of a young man who was hanged and whose heart was cut out of his body. In the process of his investigation, Landor slowly befriends the not yet famous poet, Edgar Allan Poe (Melling). They begin helping each other uncover clues regarding the murders.
Bale plays the poker faced detective we liken to a Benoit Blanc without the accent or the comedy. But he’s always a step or two ahead of everyone else when deciphering what has transpired. He is still grieving his wife and longing to see his missing his daughter, Mattie (Hadley Robinson) he says has run away. Landor has flashbacks of the beautiful Mattie and you see his pain, hoping to see her again.
At the same time, when Poe is working with Landor, they get to know the the Academy’s physician, Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones) and his wife, Julia (Gillian Anderson). She is stone faced, imperious and always seems to be hiding something. But it’s the doctor’s beautiful and mysterious daughter, Lea Marquis (Lucy Boynton) who attracts Poe’s attention. As he starts falling in love with her, he finds out she’s part of a family with secrets.
The structure of the script is like following a real investigation with a series of slow reveals as facts come out about the murders as well as the lives of Landor, Edgar Allan Poe and suspects.
The look of the film is just as cold and reserved as the characters in the frame. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi has experience working with both Christian Bale (Hostiles) and in the cold (TheGrey) so his soft focus, blue filtered hue adds to the underlying tension and rigidity of the characters.
This is especially seen in the hard-nosed West Point Superintendent Thayer, played by TimothySpall and his second in command, Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney). The legendary Robert Duvall is almost unrecognizable in a small, but intense role as the all-seeing cleric, Jeań Pepe, who puts Landor and Poe on the path to solving the crimes.
The resolution and reveals in the final act come so fast, and in such rapid fire, they lose some of their impact. It almost feels like Cooper was just ready to be done with this tale, and frankly, so were we.
Netflix. 2 hours 8 minutes. R
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