Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Pale Blue Eye.
After debuting in select theaters on Dec. 23, The Pale Blue Eye, a gothic murder mystery featuring Edgar Allen Poe as one of the detectives on the case, is now streaming on Netflix. And it’s a doozy of a whodunnit.
Based on Louis Bayard’s 2003 novel of the same name, The Pale Blue Eye transports viewers to snow-swept upstate New York in 1830. The period thriller, directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Hostiles), opens with veteran detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) being called in to investigate the gruesome murder of a cadet at the then-fledgling United States Military Academy at West Point. The cadet, Leroy Fry (Steven Meier), was hanged and, in an even more disturbing turn of events, had his heart cut out and stolen while his body sat inside the school’s hospital.
Armed with a scrap of a note found clutched in the dead man’s hand, Landor enlists another young cadet, Poe (Harry Melling), to help him solve the crime. While The Pale Blue Eye is a work of fiction, the real-life Poe did in fact attend West Point before being kicked out in January 1831 less than seven months after he was admitted.
Landor and Poe embark on a quest for truth that ultimately leads to some shocking revelations—and a pretty significant twist.
How do Landor and Poe solve the mystery?
In the wake of Fry’s mother giving Landor her son’s diary, another cadet, Randolph Ballinger (Fred Hechinger), is killed and mutilated in the same way as Fry. The diary reveals that Fry and Ballinger were close friends, and, soon after, it’s discovered that their other friend, Cadet Stoddard (Joey Brooks), appears to have run off.
Meanwhile, Poe has begun spending time, and falling in love with, mysteriously ill Lea Marquis (Lucy Boynton), the sister of Cadet Artemus Marquis (Harry Lawtey) and daughter of the school’s physician, Dr. Marquis (Toby Jones). Lea suffers from a seizure disorder and has been given only a few months to live.
After finding an officer’s jacket that links Artemus to the scene of Fry’s heart abduction, Landor works out that the Marquis family attempted an occult ritual involving the sacrifice of a human heart to try to prolong Lea’s life—and it worked. However, the effects are now wearing off and Lea needs a new victim. Enter Poe.
Lea drugs Poe and, with the help of Artemus and their mother Julia (Gillian Anderson), prepares to cut out his heart and sacrifice him. Luckily, Landor arrives just in time to interrupt the ceremony. A fight between Landor and Artemus ensues and a candle is knocked over that sets the room ablaze. Landor manages to pull Poe and Julia to safety, but Lea and Artemus are crushed and killed by falling debris.
Who actually committed the murders?
The murders are pinned on the Marquis siblings and things return to normal at West Point. But there’s still a final twist to come.
After learning early in the movie that Landor is a widower whose only daughter ran off (or so he claims), the truth of Landor’s past is revealed in a fateful encounter between the detective and Poe.
Deducing that the handwriting on the note found in Fry’s hand and a note Landor later left for him are one and the same, Poe confronts Landor over his involvement in the murders. Landor confesses that his daughter, Mattie (Hadley Robinson), didn’t actually run away, but was raped by three assailants on her way home from the academy ball two years earlier and later jumped off a cliff to her death.
Mattie came away from the assault holding Fry’s dog tag, leading Landor to seek revenge on Fry following her suicide. It was only after Landor murdered Fry that the Marquis family decided to make use of the dead body by stealing his heart.
After learning of Ballinger’s involvement from Fry’s diary, Landor killed and mutilated him in the same way to make the murders appear ritualistic. Assuming he was next, Stoddard, the third assailant, ran off to avoid the same fate.
Landor also reveals that he always intended for Poe to discover it was him: “You were the one who I was to deliver myself to all along,” he says. “I knew that from the moment I first met you, and here we are.”
In the end, Poe has the opportunity to turn Landor in and send him to the gallows, but instead decides the detective has suffered enough and burns the evidence.