Director: Scott Cooper (USA). Year of Release: 2022
We open with a quote from Edgar Allan Poe: “The boundaries which divide life from death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?” It may have just been the mood I was in, but almost immediately, I felt like screaming at the screen “any decent cardiologist.” I was partly drawn to the film because of the presence of Poe’s name in the title, but was also wary that he is also loved by those who are too pretentious for their own good.
Anyway, the film’s started. Let’s get along. It’s 1830 in Hudson Valley, New York State. Augustus Landor (Christian Bale, who has added to the facial hair he wore in Amsterdam) is a former detective who has lost his faith and passion for his job, and turned to drink. Nonetheless, he’s been called out of retirement for one last case at the nearby West Point military academy. A cadet named Fry was found hanged in the woods, apparently suicide. Landor’s job is to find Whodunnit.
One of Landor’s first discoveries is that Fry’s heart has been surgically removed, so suicide is presumably off the table. The heart removal had been performed with such accuracy that you can assume some sort of acquaintance with medicine, plus the power to be able to wield a scalpel. I’m not sure if this is merely reflecting the sexism of the time, but that alone is enough for them to conclude that the murderer was a man. Fry was also clutching a fragment of paper in his fist.
The film continues at a glacial pace, which is kind of apt, given the number of scenes of men trudging through snow. Landor gets to know Dr. Marquis, who had attended to the body, plus the various members of Marquis’s family – his alpha male son Artemus, who is also a cadet, and his rather less macho (but equally strange) female relatives: wife Julia and his sensitive epileptic daughter Lea, who is occasionally called upon to play the piano.
Then there’s the other cadet who Landor befriends – Edgar Allan Poe – yes that one: “you may know me from poems about ravens”. Poe is short and has wild staring eyes, and is something of an outcast at the academy. This makes him perfectly suited to help Landor with his investigations, Poe almost inevitably falls for Lea, and spends a lot of time hanging around in the Marquis household. As this is the 1830s, many scenes are filmed against the backdrop of dozens of lit candles.
A month passes, and nothing much happens. Landor mildly interrogates potential witnesses, but doesn’t find out much. Then, a second cadet is found hanged, and similarly sans internal organs. Landor’s paymasters get irate with him, and demand that he deliver a suspect. If he does not, the military top brass are threatening to shut down West Point (I do think that we, the viewing public, are supposed to think that this would be a terrible thing).
There is a point in the film where you think: “just what is this shit?” That point is about two-thirds of the way through, following long bursts of worthy but dull period drama when everyone talks with the sort of vocabulary, which no-one ever used, not even then. Then, all of a sudden, we rapidly shift into a melodrama which is absolutely batshit crazy, and not in a good way. I’m not saying that everything made sense before this point, but now it’s pretty much incomprehensible.
To avoid plot spoilers, I’ll avoid saying exactly what happens, but you could do worse than skip the film entirely, and just ask me what happens. One moment of craziness is followed by an equally inexplicable series of madness, when the writer obviously decided that one implausible ending wasn’t enough, and he’d add one more just to be certain. Any emotion we have invested in the plot until now is rendered immediately worthless.
Do you know Murder By Death, the murder mystery spoof screenwritten by Neil Simon? (If you don’t go away right now and watch it). Well, it contains a famous scene that ran over and over in my head during the film’s rather long ending. One of the characters is allowed an extended rant complaining about characters and ridiculous plot points which are introduced at the last minute which invalidate any of our attempts until then to work out what is going on.
There is also something vaguely distasteful about basing major plot points on the need of male heroes to avenge sexual violence carried out on their female relatives. I know that this is set nearly 2 centuries ago, but it’s playing to a modern audience, which is hopefully aware of the ability of sisters to do things perfectly well for themselves. It’s not at all necessary, and the revenge could have been just as easily for something else entirely.
For all this, the film can boast a stellar cast, including Toby Jones, Gillian Anderson Charlotte Gainsbourg, Robert Duvall, and Timothy Spall – not to mention Christian Bale as Landor. So you can’t argue that it’s badly acted, however much key plot twists depend too much on luck and coincidence. The problem is that the film takes itself way too seriously for any of this baloney to be funny.
Apparently today was the film’s last day in the cinema and it opens on Netflix this week. You could give it a go, but don’t say you weren’t warned.