Greetings again from the darkness. This is Scott Cooper’s sixth film to write and direct, and I have found each of them interesting. He has a style that leans towards atmospheric with meticulous pacing, and this latest fits the mold. Cooper’s films include CRAZY HEART (2009) and this will make his third collaboration with Oscar winner Christian Bale (HOSTILES, 2017, and OUT OF THE FURNACE, 2013).
Cooper adapted this screenplay from Louis Bayard’s 2003 novel, and it’s set in 1830 in the early stages of the West Point Academy in Hudson Valley, New York. It’s a fictional murder mystery with a couple of intriguing characters. When a cadet is found hanging from a tree with his heart removed, Colonel Thayer (Timothy Spall sporting full Spall scowl) and Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) summon retired constable/detective Augustus Landor (Bale) to quietly and discreetly solve the case to prevent unwanted attention on the Academy. Landor is renowned for solving tough cases, but as a widower, he’s also weary and has an affinity for the bottle.
It may seem odd for a West Point film to open with the Edgar Allan Poe quote, “The boundaries which divide life from death are at best shadowy and vague.” However, it doesn’t take long for this to make sense, as shortly after Landor arrives, he asks the inquisitive Cadet E.A. Poe (Harry Melling, Dudley in the Harry Potter movies) to assist with the investigation. That’s right, the infamous dark poet who wrote such classics as “The Raven”, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, and most fittingly, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, actually spent some time at West Point prior to focusing on his short stories and poetry. Cadet jumps at the chance to work with super sleuth Landor, and as you would expect, things get messy and complicated rather quickly.
Soon, Landor is consulting with occult specialist Jean Pepe (Oscar winner Robert Duvall), who fills him in on Henri LeClerc and the instruction guide to gaining immortality. By this time, Landor has interviewed Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones) who performed the autopsy, and Cadet Poe has romantic leanings towards the doctor’s daughter Lea (Lucy Boynton, SING STREET, 2016), despite her cadet brother Artemis (Harry Lawtey) bullying him. Also in the picture is Julia Marquis (Gillian Anderson), the doctor’s quite bizarre wife who relishes her interaction with Poe and Landor.
Charlotte Gainsbourg has a small role as a barkeep at the local pub, but the first two acts of the film belong to Bale and Melling. That first hour and a half hooked me with the murder mystery and the strange characters, but I wasn’t prepared (or happy) for the sharp turn and the twist in the final act. Many of Cooper’s patented vista wide shots are included and cinematographer (and frequent Cooper collaborator) Masanobu Takayanagi excels with the eerie atmosphere aided by dark interiors lit by flickering candles. Though there are numerous references to Poe’s writings – the most obvious being a screeching crow and Landor’s name (Poe’s short story, “Landor’s Cottage”), but it’s the eerie atmosphere that is the film’s best asset. I did find it unusual for a film based on a U.S. military academy to feature so many Europeans in the cast, even if they are fine performers.
Opens in theaters on December 23, 2022 and on Netflix beginning January 6, 2023