The Pale Blue Eye: Poe-faced thriller moves at a glacial pace | Review


A gruff detective partners with Edgar Allan Poe to catch a killer in this adaptation of best-selling novel The Pale Blue Eye.

1830. Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) is a New York detective with a name for closing cases. His personal reputation is less clean-cut. With a dead wife and missing daughter, he’s given up on the church and puts his faith in booze instead. Then a cadet at the nearby West Point military academy is found hanged and mutilated, and Landor is tasked with finding the killer.

It’s an intriguing premise from the start, but The Pale Blue Eye still packs a few narrative bells and whistles. When Landor enlists the help of a young cadet, it’s none other than Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling).

Gothic writer Poe really did spend time at West Point. However, Louis Bayard’s source novel, and the subsequent Netflix adaptation, is an imaginary riff on the young Poe’s literary inspirations.

How The Pale Blue Eye pays homage to Poe

The Pale Blue Eye joins a throng of movies based either on Poe’s writing (notably The Pit and the Pendulum and The Murders in the Rue Morgue) or his life.

The latter includes 2012’s The Raven, which sees a detective team up with Edgar Allan Poe to catch a serial killer. Hmm. Déjà vu aside, The Raven positions Poe as murderer’s muse; so does Kevin Bacon series The Following.

While largely a vehicle for Bale’s brooding anguish, The Pale Blue Eye also pays homage to Poe – real and imagined. Here, he’s a morbid-minded odd bod, halfway between literary genius and circus freak.

The film’s Gothic stylings are largely superficial, too, though at least it looks the part. The cinematography, grimy colour palette and desolate vibes are particularly memorable.

Unfortunately, the story isn’t quite the Gothic monstrosity you might wish, though there are brief flashes via autopsy gore and Satanic books. It doesn’t help that Landor’s investigation goes round the houses and back and again, a journey likely to test even the most patient of Poe fans.

Putting the popcorn in Poe

Unforgivably, female characters only exist to give Landor something to react to

Pacing is this story’s biggest sin. For a tale about a disembowelling serial killer, it’s astonishingly slow. Even the big reveal, when it comes, takes some 20 minutes to get to the point.

Still, this is no surprise for a film that persists in telling us what happened rather than showing us. Apparently Landor once got a suspect to confess by fixing him with a terrifying look – but you’ll have to imagine that. At least imagining it is some respite from Poe and Landor’s endless waffling.

Timothy Spall, Toby Jones and Gillian Anderson also feature, and all are very watchable. Anderson’s role, however, is maddeningly marginal. More unforgivably, the female characters only exist to give Landor something to react to. Period film or not, it’s a dated approach to storytelling.

The Pale Blue Eye has a bagful of premium ingredients, from stellar cast to cinematography, but the constituent parts never quite come together. Ultimately it all feels rather like a very expensive TV movie. Given the Netflix connection, perhaps that’s exactly what it is.

The Pale Blue Eye (2022), directed by Scott Cooper

What to read or watch next
  • The Pale Blue Eye (source novel by Louis Bayard)
  • The Masque of the Red Death, The Murders in the Rue Morgue (stories by Edgar Allan Poe)
  • The Raven (fictionalised account of Poe’s last days)
  • The Following (TV series with a Poe connection)
  • The Name of the Rose (historical whodunnit, similar vibes)
  • Angel Heart, The Babadook (muted colours)
  • Shakespeare in Love (historical characters in fiction)

Picture credit: Gilles Pfeiffer