The Pale Blue Eye Review – an uneven and overacted gothic murder mystery

By Marc Miller
Published: January 2, 2023 (Last updated: January 10, 2024)


The Pale Blue Eye is a breathtaking-looking gothic picture that’s uneven because of how horrendously overacted the entire experience can be.

We review the Netflix film The Pale Blue Eye, which does not contain spoilers.

You have to wonder what drew Scott Cooper, the director behind gritty crime films (Out of the Furnace, Black Mass, Crazy Heart), to Louis Bayard’s The Pale Blue Eye.

Sure, the director’s eye is still intact for striking and original visuals. However, the material is such standard genre fair it almost, forgive me for the pun, pales compared to the visceral character studies he crafted in the past. Nothing about the story seems grounded and is based in reality, a staple of his previous pictures. One factor contributing to the problem is how horrendously overacted the entire film can be.

The Pale Blue Eye Review and Plot Summary

The Pale Blue Eye follows Augustus Landor (Christian Bale), of some renown, a detective from New York City. He is sent for by Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) and West Point Superintendent Thayer (Timothy Spall). Why? There has been a grizzly murder on the grounds of the United States Military Academy near the Hudson River. On that cold October evening in 1830, a young cadet was found hanging from a tree and swinging from a rope. But that’s not the most shocking thing about the crime. The coroner, Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones), found that someone had snuck in and cut out the deceased’s heart the next morning.

To help investigate the crime is a young cadet who doubles as a wordsmith. He is a bit of an odd Southern duck and goes by the name of Edgar Allen Poe (The Old Guard‘s Harry Melling). Soon, not just one but other cadets turn up hanging around and without a single breath. Poe befriended multiple cadets, infiltrating areas of the college where he would stick out like a sore thumb.

From there, Poe befriends the good doctor’s daughter, a lovely young woman with a cough who suffers from fainting spells, Lea (Lucy Boynton). There are nefarious characters on the West Point grounds, like an expert on the occult, Jean-Pepe (practically a cameo by Robert Duvall) and Lea’s mother (Gillian Anderson, in full-fledged “I do declare” mode), who has an unhealthy infatuation with her children’s comings and goings.

Cooper brings some of his players from previous works to the film. Of course, you have Bale, the film’s shining star, but even he falls victim to overzealous acting in one scene. (For instance, in the scene where he confronts Jones’ Dr. Marquis). However, most of his performance is spot on. He elevates the fairly standard murder mystery material that is cloaked with impressive trappings. For instance, the film is breathtaking to look at. Masanobu Takayanagis (The Grey) sublime cinematography gives Cooper’s film a unique feel. This has been a fine staple to most of his other pictures.

However, Bale’s performance and striking visuals are uneven with the main story’s plot and some jaw-droppingly bad performances. For instance, while my admiration for Gillian Anderson has returned to her days on The X-Files, it is hard to fathom what she is trying to accomplish here. Her performance is so over-the-top that it may have been lifted from a cut Saturday Night Live skit.

While Melling has some genuine chemistry with Bale’s Landor, his overall demeanor is your generic caricature of a collection of readings you may see in any Poe Society readings. It’s nothing you haven’t seen in any show or film depicting the famous figure as almost a Shakesperean fish-out water character that never quite fits in with his surroundings. If you compare Landor and Poe, they both have that loner, mysterious quality. However, only Bale’s character has a three-dimensional quality that makes Landor well-rounded and more attractive as a result.

The other main problem is the film’s big reveal, which doesn’t hold up, even after the film reroutes us back through the steps of who is behind the killings. The plot of evil occult running around West Point is convoluted. This is plainly a red herring and cheapens the effect.

Is The Pale Blue Eye any good?

The Pale Blue Eye wastes a genuinely thought-provoking and intriguing premise. However, the script, which is also a problem with the source material, is thinly veiled. We never get to know what makes Poe tick, while we do with Landor. The film’s big reveal has the added emotional heft brought on by Bale’s turn, but that is not enough for a movie that is too long and too light on character depth.

What did you think of the Netflix film The Pale Blue Eye? Comment below.

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