The Pale Blue Eye Review: Mystery Puts Eyes on Young Poe
By Daniel Rester
Scott Cooper tried his hand at horror in 2021 with the Wendigo-based Antlers. Now he returns with a different type of horror flick with The Pale Blue Eye, a gothic murder mystery based on the 2003 novel of the same name by Louis Bayard. Christian Bale stars in the Netflix project, marking the third time he has collaborated with Cooper now – after Out of the Furnace (2013) and Hostiles (2017).
Set in 1830 in New York, The Pale Blue Eye follows a detective named Augustus Landor (Bale) as he is summoned to West Point. After arriving at the snowy grounds of the military academy, Landor is tasked with investigating a murder where a cadet had his heart removed. It isn’t long before more bodies start turning up. Landor gains some assistance from an unusual cadet fascinated with poetry. The young man is Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling).
With its sluggish pacing and cold atmosphere, The Pale Blue Eye may prove to be too slow and dreary for some viewers. At 128 minutes, Cooper could have shaved off 10 to 15 minutes to tighten the runtime. For the patient though, the film still offers some intriguing turns as it provides a fictionalized look at Poe’s early years.
West Point and its surrounding areas are solid settings as Landor and Poe explore the grounds for clues. Bale reconnects with his inner Bruce Wayne as he puts pieces of the puzzle together. Cooper could have injected a little more life into some of these scenes of sleuthing as a few of them play out in a perfunctory manner. Other ones, however, are expertly tense, such as when Landor and a search party discover a body in the woods.
Bale is magnetic like always and sports a large mustache and a black hat here as Landor. Melling gets the juicy role as Poe. The latter is clearly having fun playing the young version of the author, though his drawl borders on caricature-esque at times. Toby Jones, Timothy Spall, and other character actors fill out the supporting roles nicely. Robert Duvall pops up for a few minutes to dump some exposition relating to the occult – as Landor suspects the antagonist is dealing with dark forces.
Cooper is aided by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi in capturing the icy look of The Pale Blue Eye. The two have collaborated on a number of projects together before, and Takayanagi certainly knows how to lens snowy landscapes after having worked on Joe Carnahan’s The Grey (2011). There are some beautiful wide exteriors displayed here while the interiors are fittingly dipped in shadows and natural gray lighting. The costume design by Kasia Walicka-Maimone and music score by Howard Shore add to the chilly gothic atmosphere too.
The Pale Blue Eye is gripping at times and well-crafted on a technical level. I didn’t buy its far-fetched twist ending though, and I wish Cooper made some of the middle scenes a bit snappier. For an early January horror film released on Netflix though, audiences could be getting a lot worse. The Pale Blue Eye is a solid gothic mystery for wintertime viewing.
My Grade: 7/10 (letter grade equivalent: B)
Running Time: 2 hours and 8 minutes
The Pale Blue Eye began streaming on Netflix on January 6th, 2023.