Capsule Review: The Pale Blue Eye (2023)

A period 1830-set murder mystery that features Christian Bale and Harry Potter alum Harry Melling, where the latter plays the young Edgar Allan Poe. Not to mention a promising premise about a New York-based veteran detective (Bale’s Augustus Landor), who pairs with a young cadet Poe (Melling) to investigate the gruesome murder of a fellow cadet named Leroy Fry. His body was found hanging from a tree and his heart got carved out.

The Pale Blue Eye marks the first time writer-director Scott Cooper ventured into the murder-mystery territory. With the help of Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography, he deserves credit for capturing the movie’s cold and wintry visual palette as well as era-appropriate period details. The mystery itself initially looks as if we are getting a well-measured cerebral whodunit. Howard Shore’s ominous score complements well with the movie’s atmospheric look and feel. Melling, in the meantime, delivers an excellent supporting turn as the eccentric fictionalised version of Edgar Allan Poe.

Too bad the film isn’t as intriguing as I thought in the first place. Certainly not an Agatha Christie-type of a murder mystery. The pace moves as sluggish as walking in deep and thick snow, making its 128-minute runtime feel like a tedious crawl that drags on and on. Personally, I don’t mind a slow-burn type of film but it barely matters if the overly-dreary story prevents me from investing in the story and characters.

Christian Bale and Harry Melling in Netflix's "The Pale Blue Eye" (2023)

Despite enlisting Christian Bale in the lead and it was the third time he and Cooper collaborated together after Out of the Furnace (2013) and Hostiles (2017), his Augustus Landor is too dour for his own good. Not even the backstory of him being a depressing and booze-dependent widower, who has a tough time letting go of his sad past helps to make me root for his character. Don’t get me wrong, he sure knows how to brood a lot but all the predominantly sulking expression doesn’t equate to personality. The film also featured some potential supporting cast that includes screen veterans Timothy Spall as Superintendent Thayer, Toby Jones as the coroner Dr Daniel Marquis and others like Robert Duvall, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Gillian Anderson. But none of them left much of a lasting impression here.

Cooper — who also adapted the screenplay based on Louis Bayard’s 2003 novel of the same name — did try to enliven the otherwise muted murder mystery with a mix of shocking and twisty third-act finale. Sure, it feels convoluted and questionable but it was the only time it feels like a wake-up call.

The Pale Blue Eye is currently streaming on Netflix.