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Out of Blue is one of those films you’re not sure if you really enjoyed viewing, but you’re immensely glad that it exists, cheered to know the film industry still has room for maverick, boundary-smudging work like this. Like director Carol Morley’s previous features (The Falling, documentary Dreams of a Life, Edge), it stacks genre points of reference, tones and themes in thin slices atop one another, like drawings on translucent paper, so that the markings on individual sheets are never quite clear, never quite hidden, always overlapping and connecting. She makes decidedly odd works, ostensibly realistic but full of messy loose ends and too many ideas to digest easily. They can make for frustrating, even annoying viewing, especially if you’ve gotten used to the crisper-edged, glossier expressions of strangeness which tend to win more critical approval these days (see, for instance, Yorgos Lanthimos’ works like The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin or anything by Roy Andersson). Morley is an abstract expressionist working in a time of photorealists.
Set in New Orleans, “the city that care forgot,” as it used to call itself (quoted on a T-shirt here), Out of Blue is the first Morley pic to be set outside the poky, damp corners of the U.K., where her other films unfolded. At the same time, the movie is based, albeit loosely enough that Morley herself decided to change the title, on British novelist Martin Amis’ book Night Train, which itself was a work that took its author outside his comfort zone, unfolding in the U.S. and with a female protagonist as its main voice. So the pic is at least a couple times over an American story told through the eyes of Brits. No wonder that the filmmaker whose work it most evokes is mid-1970s Nic Roeg (The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bad Timing, Eureka), whose son Luc is a producer here.
Perhaps it’s fortunate that the star, Patricia Clarkson, who plays protagonist Det. Mike Hoolihan, just so happens to actually hail from New Orleans herself. That said, Clarkson is such a protean actor, so proficient with accents and disappearing into characters, you could easily believe she was born in Iceland, Tierra del Fuego or Des Moines. Either way, she brings some rich shading and a credible Southern accent (softer, more rubbed down than her fearsome aging Southern belle on TV’s Sharp Objects) to the part here of a recovering alcoholic cop with a childhood so lousy she’s forgotten all about it. Hoolihan is a woman who has found solace in the process of forensic investigation, sifting through details until the evidence unmasks a murderer.
Masks play a big narrative role in Out of Blue, in a way that’s both evocative and more than a little cliched as a symbolic device. The same for the cosmological theme that threads through it, seeded by the fact that the person whose death instigates the story, Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer), was an expert on black holes. First met before she dies giving a lecture at an observatory, musing on the fact that we are all made of dead stars, Jennifer is shot in the head later that night, and Mike is called in to investigate the clues. There’s an abandoned sock, pools of blood diluted by rain that came in through the open observatory roof and a deep blue jar of Hydra brand face cream. (Naming a cosmetic after a multi-headed monster from Greek mythology seems like an absurdly obvious authorial joke, but as it happens, a quick Google search reveals there actually is a face cream named Hydra, although its packaging is much different than the one seen here.)
While studying the evidence obsessively, including a video clip of Jennifer’s speech on her last night, suspects emerge. There’s Ian Strammi, the squirrelly manager of the observatory himself (Toby Jones, the master of shifty supporting characters), but what about Jennifer’s handsome boyfriend-colleague Duncan Reynolds (Jonathan Majors), or her father, noted collector and sinister rich guy, Col. Tom Rockwell (James Caan), who with his cane has a touch of John Huston in Chinatown about him. The women clustered around the case are nearly as weird and suspicious. Jennifer’s mother Miriam (Jacki Weaver) is clearly a few shrimp short of the full gumbo, and what’s with that reporter Stella Honey (Devyn Tyler), who shows up out of nowhere at the most opportune times to draw out Mike’s deepest secrets?
In the end, the whodunnit answer is both surprising and banal, and not really the point at all. The point is the dreamy texture of Morley’s filmmaking, the very Roegian flashfowards and flashbacks, Clarkson’s ecstatic expression when suddenly, almost out of nowhere, she decides to get blind drunk and take off some of her clothes onstage at a strip club, a moment that’s sad and bizarrely moving and not for a second exploitative. But like Morley’s last feature, The Falling, all that good set building, meticulous atmosphere establishing and intricate thematic planning gets mangled when the last act stages a car crash of melodrama and daft coincidences. In the end, it makes for a thrilling and utterly exasperating experience. I think I may need to see it several more times.
Production companies: BFI, BBC Films, The Electric Shadow Company, Dignity, Lipsync Productions, Independent, Cannon and Morley, Ellenglaze
Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Toby Jones, Mamie Gummer, Devyn Tyler, Yolonda Ross, Aaron Tveit, Jonathan Majors, Brad Mann, Todd Mann, Bri Collins, Jacki Weaver, James Caan
Director-screenwriter: Carol Morley, based on the novel ‘Night Train’ by Martin Amis
Producers: Luc Roeg, Cairo Cannon, Maggie Monteith
Executive producers: Ben Roberts, Rose Garnett, Joe Oppenheimer, Philip Herd, Andrew Orr, Cora Palfrey, Chris Reed, Carol Morley, John Jencks, Jay Taylor, Meroe Candy, Norman Merry, Peter Ham
Director of photography: Conrad W. Hall
Production designer: Janey Levick
Costume designer: Abby o’Sullivan
Editor: Alex Mackie
Music: Clint Mansell
Casting: Shaheen Baig, Brent Caballero
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Platform)
Sales: CAA & Independent
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