Out of Blue Reviews
Part murder-mystery, part esoteric cosmological rumination, part metaphysical neo-noir, writer/director Carol Morley's Out of Blue is a complete shambles. That this is so gives me no pleasure at all, as I'm a big fan of both Dreams of a Life (2011) and The Falling (2014). Loosely based on Martin Amis's 1997 novel Night Train, Out of Blue is obviously designed as a puzzle - the story only ever seems half-formed, as if we're seeing it through gauze. Mixing tones, themes, and styles, the film tries to be many things at once, but ultimately ends up being none of them; far too simplistic to be a fully realised examination of the nature of existence, far too predictable to be a whodunnit, far too cliched to be a noir.
Set in New Orleans in an unspecified time period, the film follows Det. Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson) as she investigates the murder of astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer), an expert on black holes and a proponent of the multiverse theory. The investigation will ultimately involve quantum mechanics, dark matter, string theory, Schrodinger's cat, and the double-slit experiment, as well as forcing Hoolihan to confront a childhood trauma she has repressed and an unsolved serial killer case from the 1970s; the ".38 Killer", who always killed women that looked a lot like Jennifer.
Out of Blue attempts to connect the relative mundanity of human suffering to the vast unknowable mysteries of the universe. On the surface, this is quite similar to what Terrence Malick does in The Tree of Life (2011). However, whereas Malick was essentially making the point that the birth of a galaxy is analogous with the birth of a child and that spirituality and science are not mutually exclusive, Morley sets our existence as a random and infinitesimal fragment in the impossible-to-conceive-of enormity of the universe.
Unfortunately, the predictable outcome of the murder investigation has virtually nothing whatsoever to do with black holes and the multiverse. Audiences will be left asking such questions as why is there so much information on Jennifer's research; is it all just an elaborate MacGuffin. The idea is obviously that in searching for the killer, Hoolihan is discovering herself, played out against the backdrop of infinity, but the film never addresses why we should care, as it doesn't actually say anything interesting or significant about the connection between humanity and the strange goings-on of space-time.
The quotidian nature of the whodunnit isn't helped by the fact that much of the acting is questionable, which seems unbelievable given the cast. As Jennifer's parents, Jackie Weaver appears to be in a completely different film to everyone else, and James Caan is simply doing an imitation of John Huston in Chinatown (1974). Devyn A. Tyler as a novice reporter, and Todd Mann and Brad Mann as Jennifer's creepy twin brothers never manage to escape the archetypal noir parameters of the characters they play. Yolanda T. Ross and Aaron Tveit, as Hoolihan's boss and colleague, respectively, are basically extras. Even Patricia Clarkson struggles with breathing life into the material. The problem, however, lies with Morley's script, rather than the actors. Essentially refusing to allow the audience any kind of emotional connection with the characters, Morley instead reduces the performances to shouting and cliches.
On the other hand Conrad W. Hall's cinematography is excellent, flattening New Orleans in the background, and essentially creating an oppressive and generic geographical location that could be anywhere yet is always just out of reach, something which works in tandem with Hoolihan's repressed memories.
With the identity of the killer proving so banal (and so predictable), the film essentially tasks its metaphysical component with the heavy lifting. However, despite creating a dream-like narrative, always receding from the viewer, Morley can't cut loose of the shackles of genre, with the film's last act falling back on melodrama and coincidence. Ultimately, we're left with a film where nothing emerges fully formed. If it's really about Hoolihan's existential discovery of self, why is psychological nuance utterly absent? If it's a murder mystery, why is it so predictable? If it's an esoteric rumination about eternity, why are so many of the necessary components presented in such a simplistic manner? Morley's themes and tones end up tripping over and undermining one another, as she fails to integrate the metaphysical concepts with the murder plot, and all in all, it's a misfire for a heretofore promising director.
This is a great movie, thought provoking, beautifully shot, well acted and directed that takes the viewer on a voyage of exploration.
If you're a brainless chimp, don't bother watching it, if, however, you're willing to be transported and have your mind actually stimulated, then this is definitely a movie for you.
Above all this film features a stunning performance by the always great but too rarely seen Patricia Clarkson, who offers a sensational portrayal of a hardboiled detective burdened with a secret so dark she doesn't even know it herself. Her gradual unravelling of the mystery of her self as she pursues a serial killer is enacted with beauty, melancholy and fear in equal measure.
The story is classic noir, but also a sort of intimate Apocalpyse Now/Heart of Darkness, as the closer she gets to solving the crime the deeper she approaches her own heart of darkness. It's far from a unique plot, but rarely is it explored and enacted with so much restraint and taut realism. Even Clarkson's temporary psychic glitches feel as real as a resurfacing memory, rather than strange as a cardboard hollywood dream.
All in all, if you like your noir with less macho posturing and more steely women, saying little but palpably feeling and seeing everything, then Out of Blue is for you.