Review: Christian Bale wades through West Point Academy in search of wickedness

By Gregory S. Karp, Feb. 7, 2023

The Pale Blue Eye fictionally recreates Edgar Allen Poe’s early career as military cadet, poet and confidant. Transpiring over a week, “The Pale Blue Eye” centers around retired New York Police Constable Augustus Landor, played by Christian Bale, who is tasked by the United States military in solving the murder case of a West Point Academy cadet.   

With three decades of an imposing acting career under his belt, the veteran actor chews the enigmatic scenery as an insubordinate ex-cop struggling to reinvigorate his once solemn image.  

Processing the recent loss of his teenage daughter, Landor is especially motivated in solving the high-profile murder case to help him move on from the loss of his only child. 

It isn’t long after Landor’s arrival at the academy that he meets Poe, played by Harry Melling. The young cadet befriends Landor and eagerly assists the ex-constable in piecing together clues to the murder.  

Melling’s performance as Poe in the film is both comical and unsettling, suggesting to the audience that he may be responsible for the brutal murder. When paired with Bale, Melling engages the gothic narrative with a rooted sense of focus in his role as the dismal poet.   

The portrayal of Poe as a United States military cadet in the film is fictional, as adapted by director Scott Cooper from Louis Bayard’s novel of the same title. The then 17-year-old poet was at West Point Academy; however, he never became an official cadet and was subsequently kicked out for falsifying his age to 22.  

With no conclusive documents outside of court-martial records, the tale of Poe’s early writing life was reimagined by writer Bayard.  

The film does an effective job at handling the esteemed, American poet as a fleshed-out character, instead of a forgettable ensemble piece with minimal scenes. This highlights Cooper’s writing style whose previous work includes the overlooked 2021 horror feature, “Antlers,” sharing much of the same eerie sentiments here.  

From a technical aspect, the cinematography is striking with lots of intimidating, wide angle shots of the surrounding, snowy landscape. There are multiple shots of military personnel dressed in bright blue uniforms, marching in line formations and beautifully contrasted by heaps of snow in every direction. Framing devices like this help to convey just how devoid of civilization West Point was during the early 19th century.  

Adding to the creepiness, lighting in certain scenes is barely visible, especially in the depiction of heavily forested areas where conflict occurs. Where lighting is prioritized, are the more intimate sections of the film, such as Landor and Poe comparing clues in the local tavern, illuminated by bright candle sticks.  

The film suffers from sluggish pacing throughout the second and third acts. Whether it be an editing issue or the first act being more fluid, it is easy to grow bored of the conversations and conflicts taking place as the film progresses. Bale, as strong as a performance as he gives, is depleted of charisma and intelligence nearing the end. 

“The Pale Blue Eye” is a slow burn, melancholic time-period piece and is deserving of your attention, although not immediately. Netflix has far better films to choose from in their wide selection of multi-genre TV shows and movies. Nonetheless, if you’re craving a good crime thriller that takes its time to develop, you may find yourself enjoying this.

Feature image courtesy of Lauren Wong

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