Scott Cooper

The Pale Blue Eye



It’s the year 1830 and, at West Point military academy, a student has been found hanged. More puzzlingly, his heart has been removed post mortem. Veteran detective August Landor (Christian Bale) is recruited by Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) and Superintendent Thayer (Timothy Spall) to investigate. He is somewhat surprised to discover that he has an ally amongst the cadets in the gangling form of Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling), who – as well as exhibiting a flair for writing dark poetry – is also an amateur sleuth. Soon, another murder occurs…

Director Scott Cooper has worked with Bale before (most memorably on the hard hitting western, Hostiles), but The Pale Blue Eye, based on a source novel by Louis Bayard, is a much more laid back affair, handsomely filmed and starring a clutch of accomplished character actors in minor roles. However, the women in particular have a thin time of it. Any film that offers the likes of Gillian Anderson and Charlotte Gainsbourg such thankless, underwritten roles should hang its head in shame.

Ultimately, The Pale Blue Eye is a two-hander between Bale and Melling (the latter having a field day as the wide-eyed, melodramatic young author). The result is an atmospheric story, with a distinctly Gothic flavour and some genuine surprises hidden within its twisty-turny plot – so it’s a pity that the eventual solution to the mystery is so risible – and that the reasons for the murders should prove to be so clumsily reductive about both disability and violence against women.

Poe aficionados will doubtless have fun spotting the various references to the great author’s work, but ultimately this feels like a missed opportunity.

3 stars

Philip Caveney



Cineworld, Edinburgh

To describe Antlers as ‘dark’ would be something of an understatement.

The tone of this powerful little eco-horror is jet black with a side order of obsidian. Directed by Scott Cooper and co-produced by Guillermo del Toro, it’s a bleak tale, an allegory that carries its twin themes – the desecration of nature and the destructive power of poverty – in plain view. The story is by no means subtle and it doesn’t make for comfortable viewing – but to be fair, that’s the last thing it’s trying to be.

In an abandoned coal mine, somewhere in the wilds of Oregon, Frank Weaver (Scott Haze) is running a covert meth operation. His home town is broken beyond repair, the nearby mountains plundered of their ‘black gold,’ and now he’s getting by the only way he knows how. But his youngest son, Aiden (Sawyer Jones), has an unfortunate habit of sticking his nose into things – and, when Frank and an employee encounter something supernatural down in the darkness, Aiden inevitably goes to investigate.

Some time later, high school teacher Julia Meadows (Keri Russell) is struggling to keep her life together. She’s failing to bond with the kids in her classes, she can’t seem to visit the local liquor store without casting yearning glances at the bottles of spirits – and she’s troubled by horrors from her childhood. She is currently living with her brother, the town sheriff, Paul (Jesse Plemons), and they share a past that they’d clearly rather forget. Perhaps that’s why Julia is so drawn to the plight of Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas), who sits silently at his school desk, drawing a series of very disturbing pictures. But what has happened to his father and his younger brother? And what exactly is he keeping locked up in the attic of the family home?

It would be too much of a spoiler to tell you more about the story. Suffice to say that the creature that the Weavers have unwittingly unleashed is parasitic in nature and has a habit of vacating its hosts in a very messy manner. But while the story goes to some fantastic places, the grubby reality of the setting keeps everything anchored. The squalid, dying town is a realistic place and its inhabitants are believable enough to encourage us to follow them deep into the realms of the unreal.

Those who flinch from body horror should be warned there are visceral scenes here. We all know that teachers have a tough time, but the events endured by school principal, Miss Booth (Amy Madigan), must qualify as an all time low. Cooper keeps offering tantalising glimpses of something unspeakable lurking in the shadows and his ‘less-is-more’ approach consequently ramps up the fear factor. It’s only towards the end of the film, when we finally see the creature in more detail, that the tension dissipates somewhat… but by then, the director’s work is done and we’ve well and truly been put through the mill.

Antlers is a an accomplished creature feature, that generates an atmosphere of mounting dread for most of its duration. Grim and immersive, it’s eminently suitable for spooky autumn viewing, but we warned, the central premise is not for the faint-hearted.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney



It’s often been said that, in times of political uncertainty, Hollywood revisits the Western – and it’s certainly true that this once moribund genre has recently enjoyed a bit of a renaissance, not least through Netflix’s superb series, Godless, which offers a refreshingly feminist view on the subject. Scott Cooper’s bleak and savage vision of the Old West seems designed primarily to remind us what an unpleasant era it was in which to eke an existence. Which is not to say that it isn’t a fascinating film. It is – even if it occasionally makes for uncomfortable viewing.

The film starts in New Mexico in 1892, towards the end of the infamous ‘Indian Wars.’ Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), a seasoned cavalry officer, finds himself presented with an assignment he really doesn’t relish. He is to escort his old adversary, a captive Cheyenne warrior called Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), to Montana. The old man is stricken with cancer and wants to return to his ancestral burial grounds to end his life. Blocker makes no secret of the fact that he hates Yellow Hawk and has no intention of burying an axe unless it’s in the back of the old man’s head, but the US President has decreed that he must fulfil his obligations, so he rounds up a detachment of men and sets off on the long and arduous journey. (Watch out for a cameo role from young Timothee Chalomet currently being talked up as a potential  Oscar contender for his role in  Call Me By Your Name.)

Soon, Blocker and his men stumble across a harrowing tragedy in the shape of Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), who has just witnessed her entire family being massacred by a Comanche war party. Blocker has no option but to take the widow along for the ride, hoping that he can drop her off somewhere safe along the way… but as the journey progresses and a series of disasters unfold, it becomes clear that Blocker and Quaid’s  lives are to become inextricably entangled.

Cooper paints an unpleasant picture of the West: a world where gunfire and rape seem to lurk around every corner; where most of Cooper’s men are suffering from what was then called ‘the melancholy’ but which we now label as PTSD; where irrational hatred begets ever more hatred; and where women are seen as a commodity to be taken and used at any man’s whim. Bale is excellent in the central role, managing to convey his internal agony with little more than a look and a shrug – whilst Pike, whose character goes through a living hell in this film, is also memorable.

More than anything else though, the film serves as a comment on what’s happening in Trump’s America right now. It helps you to understand the entrenched Republican values that makes Americans so resolute on the right to bear arms – and why the country is inevitably heading for such devastating sorrows.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Black Mass



Time was, when Johnny Depp’s name attached to a movie could be interpreted as a guarantee of quality, but to be fair, it’s been a while since that maxim held true. A once keen ability to pick the right project has lately foundered amidst a welter of vanity puff-pieces. So it’s heartening to report that Black Mass is a major step in the right direction, with Depp submitting his best performance in a very long time.

Here, he’s depicting real life  villain James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, a career criminal who operated successfully around his home town of Boston over a period of thirty years, largely because his brother, Bobby, was a senator and his best friend, John Connolly,  an FBI agent. Bulger cannily formed an ‘alliance’ with Connolly, trading inside information on his rivals to ensure that he could operate his web of vice and murder with complete impunity.

Depp has worked hard to make himself look unattractive – complete with thinning hair, bad teeth and pale blue eyes, he’s hardly recognisable as his former self. Initial fears that this is simply going to be a ‘makeup led’ performance are soon quashed, as he submits a convincing turn as a repellent psychopath, a man who can skip from helping an old lady with her shopping, to shooting a man point blank in the face, without raising so much as an eyebrow.

There’s a lot of unflinching violence on show here, but its matched by a sharp script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth and there’s the added bonus of a supporting cast to die for – Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sargaard… Seriously, there’s enough talent on show here to fill several movies; but there’s no denying that this is Depp’s film and he has a field day with it.

Like many real life stories, if presented as a piece of fiction, this would seem unlikely. Stay in your seat for the closing credits which offer glimpses of the real protagonists and we’re finally able to fully appreciate the lengths to which director Scott Cooper has gone to ensure that his actors resemble the major players.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney