Despite a less-than-impeccable career, Scott Cooper is one of the few filmmakers who still dares to do unconventional things in 2022 and beyond. That’s why I hold him in high esteem. In “The Crimes of the Academy,” an adaptation of Louis Bayard’s 2003 novel, Cooper has compromised with Netflix’s standards in exchange for distribution and coverage. However, the mere fact that $80 million has been invested in a chilling atmospheric thriller set in the icy winter of West Point, New York, and starring Edgar Allan Poe, puts a smile on my face.
A Unique Detective Story
Augustus Landor, formerly a detective and now a cynical and reclusive woodsman, is thrust back into service to investigate the apparent suicide of a young cadet at the nearby military academy. The victim, Fry, was found hanged in the forest, but during the night, an intruder broke into the morgue and stole Fry’s heart. Was Satan involved? To solve this enigma, Landor enlists the help of Edgar Allan Poe, a brilliant yet erratic cadet who is better known for his poetry than his military skills. Harry Melling’s exceptional portrayal of Poe, alongside Christian Bale’s performance, forms the heart of “The Crimes of the Academy.” Together, they embark on a thrilling journey to uncover a multiple murderer.
The Challenge of Incorporating Historical Figures
Introducing a historical character into a fictional narrative often diminishes any sense of tension surrounding their fate. This is precisely the problem that Cooper faces with Edgar Allan Poe. Although Cooper’s intention to explore the younger years of Poe is apparent, it slightly deflates the thriller aspect of the story. Instead, it becomes an intellectual puzzle, with Landor and Poe engaging in extensive and eloquent dialogues with each other and the numerous characters revolving around West Point Academy.
A Rich and Crowded Film
“The Crimes of the Academy” boasts an impressive cast, including Gillian Anderson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Toby Jones. However, they struggle to shine amidst the meticulously constructed but slightly mechanical plot. Emotional investment in characters other than the two leads is sadly limited. As the desire to uncover the culprit(s) takes a back seat, viewers find themselves eagerly anticipating another captivating face-off between Bale and Melling. And yes, there is a lot of talking – more than in any of Cooper’s previous films.
A Literary Diversion
Rather than a straightforward thriller, “The Crimes of the Academy” offers a diversion with literary qualities. Cooper skillfully contrasts the richness of dialogue with the frigid and silent expanses surrounding West Point. Yet, it is precisely these aesthetics that somewhat overshadow the film, conforming to the usual criticisms of Netflix productions: excessive darkness at night, oversaturated colors during the day, and a certain sameness to its overall appearance.
Cooper’s personal touch is evident in the deliberate pacing, which is deliberately slow. Stripped of the aforementioned aesthetics, “The Crimes of the Academy” has enough material for a 90-minute film. However, Cooper stretches every element to the limit, whether it be a dialogue, a tracking shot, or a static frame of a frozen river. This deliberate and elongated tempo distinguishes the film as an anomaly, a production that seems almost accidental and detached from mainstream cinema. Yet, for all its quirks, I am glad that “The Crimes of the Academy” exists.
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