Christian Bale in The Pale Blue Eye (2022)

‘The Pale Blue Eye’ movie review: Christian Bale hunts a West Point killer

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A grizzled detective teams with a young Edgar Allan Poe to track a killer on the campus of West Point in The Pale Blue Eye, an exceptionally well-made but ultimately unsatisfying adaptation of the Louis Bayard novel that released in U.S. cinemas in December before bowing on Netflix this weekend.

It’s hard to fault the first-rate cast or the filmmakers, including director Scott Cooper (Antlers, Black Mass), who adapted the source novel. But while The Pale Blue Eye is fully captivating for its first two thirds, it simply does not unravel its central mystery in rewarding or even sensible fashion. Still, there’s enough good on display here to warrant at least a soft recommendation.

The good in The Pale Blue Eye includes sumptuous production design and fog-laden cinematography from Masanobu Takayanagi that contrasts rural America with the rigid authority of military training ground West Point in 1830. The vibrant, spotless military attire clashes nicely with the earthy real-world horror that surrounds the story.

The Pale Blue Eye also boasts an unusually refined cast full of flavorful performances. Christian Bale stars as Augustus Landor, who is summoned by West Point heads Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) and Superintendent Thayer (Timothy Spall) in the wake of a gruesome discovery: one of their cadets been hanged, and his heart removed from his chest while the body was in the morgue.

Once a noted police detective, Landor is now a despondent alcoholic who lives alone in a cabin in the woods of rural New York following the disappearance of his daughter. Bale nicely underplays the role, achieving just the right balance between stoic investigator and apathetic drunk.

One of the cadets Landor interviews following the murder just happens to be future master of horror Edgar Allan Poe, played by an arrestingly mannered Harry Melling (Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films), who steals his scenes away from the low-key Bale.

Poe doesn’t seem to have a connection to the deceased, but does appear to be taken by the poetic nature of his death, so Landor recruits him to assist in the investigation. That involves aligning himself in the peer group of fellow cadets Marquis (Harry Lawtey), Ballinger (Fred Hechinger), and Stoddard (Joey Brooks), prime suspects in the murder.

And then there’s Marquis’ family: his father (Toby Jones) is the West Point coroner who bungled the autopsy, his sister Lea (Lucy Boynton) is prone to mysterious seizures, and his mother is played by Gillian Anderson, so you infer there’s something going on with her character.

Showcasing an embarrassment of acting talent, The Pale Blue Eye throws in Robert Duvall as an expert in ancient texts who Landor and Poe consult, while Charlotte Gainsbourg is wasted as a lusty barmaid. Ozark’s Charlie Tahan also shows up briefly as a West Point cadet.

While it takes its time to unravel the central mystery, The Pale Blue Eye is nothing less than captivating over its first two acts, with Bale’s detective and Melling’s Poe nicely playing off each other and developing an engaging rapport.

Poe really did attend West Point in the late 1820s, and while the rest of the film is entirely fictional, its events are intended to suggest the kind of real-world horrors that might have inspired the author. The Pale Blue Eye serves as a nice homage to his works, with numerous references to his works dropped in throughout the story.

But there’s no denying that The Pale Blue Eye bungles the ending, and completely whiffs on two separate chances to deliver a satisfying resolution. The third act of the film turns a classy gothic thriller into something along the lines of the John Cusack thriller The Raven; while that isn’t all bad, it’s undeniably a letdown.

The Pale Blue Eye

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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