The Netflix release, mystery thriller film “The Pale Blue Eye,” has the whole gothic touch and aesthetic in its visuals. The plot, concerning an experienced detective appointed to investigate a strange death at the still-new United States Military Academy, also has enough grim and dark matters. Both of these, combined with the period that is being portrayed and the characters who are involved, make for a great watch. Yet, “The Pale Blue Eye” ultimately stops at being just mediocre, with a somewhat predictable plot bringing it down.
Major Spoilers Ahead
‘The Pale Blue Eye’ Plot Summary: What Is The Film About?
The year is 1830, and the place is the wintry Hudson Valley, with snowy landscapes and a foggy gloom all around. Augustus Landor is a distinguished name among New York City constables, for the experienced detective has multiple solved cases under his professional record. Precisely for such a record, the Governor of New York has recommended his name to the strongest authority in need of such services at the time—the United States Military Academy. Still in its relatively early years, and therefore still a place questioned by some, the captains in charge of the Academy are scared of losing their reputation. The reason for such a scare is that a student at the place, young cadet Fry, has been found dead, hanging from a tree inside the compound. Augustus Landor is immediately hired to investigate this death. Although the military is aware of the detective’s troubled life in recent times—his daughter Mathilde had run off from home a couple years ago, and this loss had driven the widower Landor towards heavy drinking—they want to get the very best on board.
After arriving at the Academy, Landor examines the dead body, which has been placed in the morgue at this time, under the observation of Dr. Daniel Marquis. To the doctor and the rest of the authorities at the place, this death is a definite suicide, as Fry was found dead by asphyxiation. But what is more concerning and gruesome is the fact that although the body was found soon after and had been brought to the hospital ward, it had been mutilated by someone in the middle of the night. Someone had carefully carved the dead man’s heart out of his chest and taken the organ away. Landor visits the spot where Fry had been found by a fellow cadet, Huntoon, the previous night, and a strong suspicion builds in him. A return to the hospital ward and a re-examination of the dead body confirms this suspicion—cadet Fry had not hanged himself to death but had been killed by someone in this horrific manner. Probably intrigued by the very unusual nature of the crimes, Augustus Landor starts to investigate the case of the murder and the missing heart.
What Conclusion Does Landor Reach Through His Investigation?
From further investigations at the Academy, Landor finds a small piece of paper stuck inside the tight grasp of Fry. Although this paper has certain writings on it, what they say is not clear at the moment. Landor also finds out that the man supposed to be on duty guarding the dead body in the hospital ward the previous night had been relieved of his duty by some higher official. From his conversation with the guard, the detective figures out that someone wearing a captain’s coat had pretended to be a captain and relieved the guard of his duty so that the perpetrator could enter the empty ward. This coat had bars stitched only on its right shoulder and none on its left, which was rather peculiar, and this became a crucial clue later on. Landor is also approached by another young cadet, who tells him to look for a poet as the murderer, and the detective then runs into this same man at the local pub. The cadet introduces himself as a poet himself named Edgar A. Poe and explains that the sheer act of ripping one’s heart out could only be considered poetic and nothing else. From here on, Landor and Poe join hands as the veteran detective secretly appoints the young apprentice to keep an eye on everyone in the Academy.
Together with Poe, Landor deduces that the piece of paper found with Fry was part of a note that some woman had presumably written to him, asking him to meet at the empty grounds of the Academy that night. Finding out who had written this message would be crucial, but for a moment, the two sleuths turn their attention towards the stolen heart. More gruesome acts of similar nature followed, as a cow and a sheep were killed on the grounds of the Academy, and their hearts were ripped out in a similar fashion. Landor visits the icehouse and spots an important clue: a circle and a triangle have been drawn on the floor, along with candles and blood placed in patterns. After consulting a friend of his named Jean-Pepe, who is a professor with knowledge of occult rituals and practices, Landor realizes that the heart and blood are being used for some dark sorcery.
Over the next few days, a second murder takes place—that of cadet Ballinger, who had been a good friend of cadet Fry. Ballinger’s body is also found with his heart carved out, except this time, the carving looked more amateurish or as if the murderer was in a hurry to do it. A third close friend of theirs, cadet Stoddard, runs off from the Academy with all of his belongings, fearing that he will be the next target of the killer on the loose. For some brief time, cadet Poe comes under suspicion from the captains at the Academy, for Fry and Ballinger both had had arguments and fights with the young man just before they died. Landor directly confronts Poe about this suspicion, and the latter reveals that he was the subject of ridicule for both the cadets, along with many others in the Academy, due to his unusual appearance, stature, and personality. Poe admits that he had nothing to do with the murders, and Landor believes him. The detective focuses on trying to find out more about the common friends of the dead cadets and also about any names on the campus who have an interest in black magic, and both lead him to a single man and his family. Dr. Daniel Marquis, the Academy’s appointed doctor, also has his son Artemus studying at the same military Academy. Artemus had been good friends with Fry, Ballinger, and Stoddard, and they would often spend time at the Marquis’ house. The doctor’s daughter Lea, who was only a few years younger than Artemus, was also a romantic interest for these friends, especially Ballinger. However, once Lea and Poe met during a gathering at the Marquis’ house, the two connected and gradually developed feelings for one another. In fact, this was the reason why Ballinger and Poe had an argument with each other. Detective Landor also visits the house a couple times after being invited by Dr. Daniel and his wife, Julia.
It is during one such visit that Landor sneaks away from the gathering and goes through the house. He had earlier gone through Artemus’ belongings in the Academy, much to the cadet’s displeasure, but had found no evidence so far. Now inside the house, Landor finds the captain’s coat with missing bars on the left shoulder, meaning that someone from the Marquis family had pretended to be the captain and had desecrated Fry’s body. While this is already strong proof, Landor solves the whole matter after consulting his friend Jean-Pepe once more. The Marquis family were descendants of a notorious witch hunter and practitioner of dark magic, Father Henri Le Clerc. At the present time, Lea Marquis has been suffering from an unexplainable disease in which she is experiencing random episodes of fits and seizures. Believing in the black magic rituals written about by their ancestor, Artemus and Julia had been preparing for such an act to cure Lea of her ailment. At present, Lea had convinced Edgar Poe to be a part of this ritual, in which he would be killed in order to help his beloved, and the ritual was about to begin. Landor manages to reach the icehouse in time and save Poe from this plight. However, Lea sets fire to the building in order to stop Landor from stopping their ritual, and ultimately Lea and Artemus die in the fire. Landor reports to the authorities that it was Artemus who had killed the two cadets and also the animals in between and had carved out all their hearts to use in his supernatural ritual. While Poe recovers at the hospital from severe injuries, Augustus Landor is thanked and let off from service by the Military Academy.
The Marquis family is an interesting mix of desperation towards the supernatural, and restraint because of science in terms of the four characters. It is only Daniel who is understood to have not actively participated in the occult practices that the rest of his family were conducting. This is because of the man’s profession in medicine and the proximity to science that is part of his occupation. Daniel himself says so, but he also keeps faith in his family and lineage. When Landor confronts him about Father Henri Le Clerc, the doctor tries to argue that Le Clerc was not an evil man, as was believed by most, but that he had reasons for his actions. Similarly, Daniel Marquis obviously kept quiet and therefore supported the actions of his wife and children, despite knowing that it was Artemus who stole Fry’s heart. At the time of the confrontation, Dr. Daniel looks almost as if he has been living in denial for so long, dearly wishing that nobody would ever find out about his family’s dark practices. On the other hand, Lea and Artemus are both blindly faithful to black magic, despite being of the younger generation and both highly educated, considering the times. While Artemus is a cadet popular in the academy because of his sharp personality, Lea is fluent in French and knowledgeable about literature, all of which perhaps came with her high-society heritage. These two characters are not at all easy suspects for carving out dead bodies and organizing occult rituals, and yet these two are so blinded by their dark faith that they sacrifice their lives for it. Probably the least explored and perhaps the most interesting character in this family is Julia Marquis, who appears only a few times but holds control every time she does. Even Landor understands that Julia is the one presiding over the rest of the family inside the household, and in the end, she is the one encouraging her children to continue with the ritual. While there might be a very maternal instinct at work here to anyhow save her daughter, Julia’s affinity towards the occult is quite evident. Perhaps she was the one always interested in it and studying about it, and it was she who introduced Lea to it and then Artemus as well. In the end, Julia is left childless due to her dabbling in the supernatural, but whether her faith in it is affected is not revealed.
‘The Pale Blue Eye’ Ending Explained: How Were The Murders Connected To Mathilde? What Happens To Landor And Poe?
After returning to his cabin, Landor sees that Poe has come to meet him despite not being fully fit yet. What Poe reveals is a new turn of events, which perhaps is not too surprising but is a revelation, nonetheless. During their initial investigation, Landor had left a small, handwritten note for Poe, asking the apprentice to go meet him at the icehouse. The writing on this note matched exactly with that written on the torn piece of paper found in Fry’s hand. After all, it was detective Augustus Landor who had committed the two murders. Poe then goes on to explain the reasons for it, which are directly linked to the disappearance of Landor’s daughter Mathilde. After settling in the Hudson Valley, Landor lost his beloved wife, following which his daughter Mathilde became his only affection in life. But on one particular night two years ago, while returning from the Academy Ball, the young woman had been forcefully picked up and then raped by a few cadets of the Academy. The girl had managed to tear off a locket from one of her attackers’ necks, and this locket remained with Landor. Mathilde had never been able to recover from the attack, and a few days later, she jumped from a cliff and killed herself. Landor had perhaps been thinking of revenge since then, and he told everyone that his daughter had run away from home. Landor had then tracked down the cadet whose locket Mathilde had brought home that night, and this was Fry. From Fry’s personal diary, which his mother gave to Landor at his funeral, the detective learned of the participation of his two close friends, Ballinger and Stoddard, in that horrific act against Mathilde. It was for this reason that he then murdered Ballinger and would have done the same to Stoddard had he not fled.
However, Landor had no idea that a plot of occult rituals was also brewing in the Military Academy, and this was a sheer coincidence. On the night of the first murder, the man had strung Fry up to a trial and was hanging him to bring out information about his friends. He had lured the cadet to the place by sending him a hand-written note through his female accomplice who runs the pub. This interrogation was cut short as another cadet, who found the body, came their way, and Landor left the scene with Fry still hanging. Once Fry’s body was cut loose and taken to the hospital ward, Artemus Marquis, who was in need of a dead human corpse to harvest a heart for her sister’s ritual, decided to make use of this chance. When Landor committed the second murder of Ballinger, he knew that he had to copy the heart extraction in order to tie it to the first murder. Everyone suspected that the same person had killed and taken out cadet Fry’s heart, and Landor used this suspicion to protect himself. After his second murder, he carved out Ballinger’s chest and took out his heart, only to make it seem like it was the work of Artemus.
In the end, the detective confesses everything when Poe confronts him, but the young poet leaves in tears at the fact that the man he had trusted had kept all this away from him. Poe would have probably supported the detective had he told him of all this earlier, and now he decides to burn off the handwritten note that Landor had left him. This could have been the only proof of Landor’s crime, and with it burned out of existence, the detective’s secret remains with himself and Poe. The man then visits the cliff from which Mathilde had jumped, and in an ultimate farewell, he lets go of a ribbon belonging to his daughter, which he had dearly held on to till now. While “The Pale Blue Eye” ends with this very shot, it is possible to think of Landor also jumping to his own death just like his daughter had done. The man had undoubtedly lived his life out of vengeance for so long, looking for the men who had wronged Mathilde, and the revenge was now over. There is little motivation for Landor to keep working and living any more, and therefore, he might now wish to reunite with his daughter in the afterlife and jump off the high cliff. However, the fact that his death would also let Stoddard rest easy, also perhaps makes this a comparatively less likely possibility.
The most unusual, although arguably expected decision in the last minutes is Poe’s choice of burning the hand-written note that could have incriminated Landor. Throughout the film’s narrative, it is established that Poe’s character is one that lacks friendship or companionship of any kind. He is ridiculed by his fellow cadets and not kindly taken by his superiors and captains either, probably due to his preference for poetry and literature over the physical activities of becoming a soldier. So, when Landor appoints Poe to be his apprentice, the detective’s sidekick, so to speak, Poe is more affected by Landor’s friendly behavior towards him than the job at hand. The young man had obviously expected his new friend, although a senior, and his only good friend, to have confided in him about his crimes. He is also baffled at the fact that Landor, whom he had held in such high esteem until now, was a murderer. Poe confusedly asks Landor why he did not take the help of the law and report the rapists to the authorities, only for Landor to say that he genuinely wanted the cadets killed and not merely punished. Despite all the pain this moment causes Poe—Landor has let him down both as a friend and an idol—the young man decides to burn the only proof against Landor. Poe’s character in “The Pale Blue Eye” seems such that he is ready to do anything for someone close to him, someone who understands and accepts him the way he is. This is also the reason why he had so readily accepted to be part of the occult practice to help his beloved Lea recover from illness. Just like detective Landor, Poe too ultimately decides to leave the law out of the extremely personal matter. The only crucial difference is that Poe does this out of forgiveness and not out of a thirst for revenge.