Movie Review: The Pale Blue Eye (2022)

Think twice before pressing play on this gothic thriller

J.P. Williams
4 min readApr 30, 2023
Photo by Kalea Jerielle on Unsplash.

Christian Bale is one of the greatest actors of our time who hasn’t won the Academy Award for Best Actor. He’s good enough that even in the case of a less than stellar film, it’s more plausible that the film ill-used him than the other way around. Thus, The Pale Blue Eye, directed by Scott Cooper and based on a 2003 novel of the same name by Louis Bayard, would seem to be an obvious choice for spending a couple intense but enjoyable hours with Netflix.

The Pale Blue Eye keeps all promises as the story begins. In the autumn of 1830, the United States Military Academy at West Point summons retired detective Augustus Landor (Bale) to investigate a cadet’s suicide. Landor has taken to drink since tragic events stole his wife and daughter. He immediately ascertains that the suicide was a murder, and the academy orders him to find the killer as fast as possible for political reasons. Aiding him in his investigation is a cadet whose fanciful demeanor lightens the mood . . . a little. This is the young Edgar Allan Poe.

All the tropes are there: further murders, gruesome autopsies, cryptic notes, mysterious pasts, personal entanglements and clandestine meetings. The events occur in impressive architectural and natural settings, historical details abound — according to Distractify, Edgar Allan Poe was indeed a cadet at West Point during the time of the film’s setting — and the expanding cast of suspects keeps you guessing, but this is no Death on the Nile (2022) or Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022). The Pale Blue Eye takes itself too seriously for goofy characters, preferring them as somber as figures in old daguerreotypes.

Most of the cast rises to the demands of their roles. Bale fades, leaving only a brilliant investigator, a fallen man and a bearer of dark thoughts. Nearly upstaging him is Harry Melling as the young Edgar Allan Poe. Melling’s mournful visage somehow strikes to the essence of the writer more fully than even photographs of the actual man. Gillian Anderson impresses as a creepy old biddy, and Toby Jones and Timothy Spall, two character actors slotted into everything, show them increased rather than diminished with age. Thus far, it’s hard to complain.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The problems start in the latter half of the film. Lucy Boynton as the mysterious young woman turned love interest brings nothing to her role, and the film doesn’t help, giving her some of the most awkward scenes. As momentum builds toward the moment of crisis, the actors lay it on for borderline cheese. Then the action breaks with a scene that feels lifted from a ho-hum episode of Friday the 13th: The Series or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The script has a new objective: destroy everything achieved so far.

To this end, it’s assiduous. After a few scenes that should be where the film ends, it continues to insist on emotional resonance even as it ruins a major character arc, puts a ludicrous line in the mouth of a genius, and raises ethical questions more irritating than intriguing. Were that character’s actions right? Or at least understandable? Are we then to overlook them? Is that what the filmmakers want from us? And are we prepared to accept that? It’s too late in the film for such loss of focus and it ruins everything.

Thus ends what could have been a perfectly good Christian Bale film and a perfectly enjoyable Saturday night. Potential viewers are advised to skip The Pale Blue Eye, which takes its name from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843). Instead, visit your local Barnes & Noble, purchase one of those giant budget volumes with the complete works of that macabre master, and start reading. That’s less likely to disappoint than cinema.

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