'The Pale Blue Eye' is an appealingly dark period mystery, but Scott Cooper's adaptation largely frustrates | Movie review

Jan. 3—Scott Cooper is a competent filmmaker. He's rarely an extraordinary one.

Generally, the writer-director makes movies with premises so strong as to lead to disappointment when they prove to be only mediocre.

However, there have been two exceptions: the excellent 2015 mob drama "Black Mass" and Cooper's 2009 debut, "Crazy Heart," lifted by an Academy Award-winning performance by Jeff Bridges.

Unfortunately, now for the third time, Christian Bale has been unable to elevate a Cooper film despite how talented he is. "The Pale Blue Eye" — a highly promising but ultimately uneven period mystery drama that hits Netflix this week after a brief run in select theaters.

Bale previously starred in Cooper's 2013 crime drama, "Out of the Furnace," and in the 2017 Western "Hostiles." With "The Pale Blue Eye" added to their collaborations, they have now made what Bale has dubbed the "Ethics of Revenge" trilogy. (Great name. Polite clap.)

Based on Louis Bayard's 2003 novel of the same name — which Cooper says he has wanted to adapt since reading it relatively soon after its publication — involves the disturbing murder of a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1830 and the involvement of a fictionalized version of a young Edgar Allan Poe.

Bale portrays Augustus Landor, a local detective with a reputation for favoring a drink who is recruited to investigate the death, which involved the skillful removal of the young man's heart.

Landor, who has no love for what, in his view, the academy turns the cadets into, is kept on a short leash by its superintendent, Col. Sylvanus Thayer (Timothy Spall, "Mr. Turner") and, especially, Thayer's second-in-command, Capt. Ethan Hitchcock (Simon McBurney, "The Theory of Everything"). He also is frustrated with the typically tight-lipped cadets.

There is, though, one cadet with plenty: Poe (Harry Melling).

"The man you're looking for is a poet," he insists to Landor.

Perhaps Poe would know, as he will, of course, go on to pen myriad compositions including poems "The Raven" and "Annabell Lee" and — at least thematically important to this saga — the short story "The Tell-Tale Heart."

(In his director's statement, Cooper notes that Poe was at West Point for only seven months — "before getting kicked out" — during which time no murders are believed to have been committed.)

Although seemingly unsure of what to make of Poe and his amateur detective work, Landor nonetheless enlists him to aid in the investigation in secret, hoping the artistic fellow can help him get insight into cadets such as Artemus Marquis (Harry Lawtey, "Industry"). He is the son of the academy's diagnostician and surgeon, Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones, "Empire of Light"), whose examination of the cadet in the morgue Landor reveals to have been sloppy.

One way in which Poe chooses to help solve the murder is to try to win the affection of Artemus' enchanting but epileptic sister, Lea Marquis (Lucy Boynton).

To say any more about what unfolds in "The Pale Blue Eye" would be doing a disservice to viewers, but, as you may have guessed, it goes to some strange and dark places.

Frustratingly, however, a late crucial scene — very dark and very strange — comes off more silly than serious. Making it work would have been no easy task, but it's still problematic that Cooper struggles in doing so.

Furthermore, he also gives his actors a lot of room to work, which generally pays dividends but results in Bale and Melling each flailing about in one key moment apiece.

Other than that, though, Melling (The "Harry Potter" movies, "The Queen's Gambit") is one of the film's greatest assets. His Poe is odd but also oddly likable. A couple of scenes Melling shares with Boynton ("Bohemian Rhapsody") are among the film's most engaging.

Bale is, of course, solid but he brings little to the proceedings beyond steadiness — at least until the final few minutes of "The Pale Blue Eye." This last little bit of story is almost compelling enough to recommend the film, but not quite.

The same goes for two notable supporting players: Gillian Anderson ("The Crown"), as Julia Maquis, the protective mother of Artemis and Lea; and Robert Duvall ("Crazy Heart"), as Jean Pepe, a phrenologist and expert in the type of dark doings unearthed by Landor and Poe during their sleuthing. (Fun fact: Duvall and Bale last shared the screen in 1992's "Newsies," when Bale was in his teens.)

Cooper's previous effort was 2021's "Antlers," an appealingly unusual tale of horror that offered too little beyond its creepy aesthetics. Perhaps that flick had only so high a ceiling, but that's not the case with "The Pale Blue Eye." All the ingredients are here for it to have been a terrific whodunit instead of a missed opportunity.

The real mystery is what Copper can do to take his work to the next level.

'The Pale Blue Eye'

Where: Netflix.

When: Jan. 6.

Rated: R for some violent content and bloody images.

Runtime: 2 hours, 8 minutes.

Stars (of four): 2.