An effectively harrowing and non-exploitative recap of real-life events, "Out of the Blue" dramatizes New Zealand's largest mass-murder -- the Nov. 13, 1990, slaying in small seaside town Aramoana of 13 residents by well-armed local loner David Gray, whose reasons for going homicidal died with him the next morning.

An effectively harrowing and non-exploitative recap of real-life events, “Out of the Blue” dramatizes New Zealand’s largest mass-murder — the Nov. 13, 1990, slaying in small seaside town Aramoana of 13 residents by well-armed local loner David Gray, whose reasons for going homicidal died with him the next morning. Chilling, often moving docudrama focuses not so much on the mayhem or murderer, but on the bewildered, occasionally courageous reactions of ordinary citizens caught in the inexplicable violence. Second feature for helmer Robert Sarkies, following 1999′s well-received “Scarfies,” could parlay critical acclaim into foreign arthouse and small-screen sales.

Rigorously avoiding conventional thriller portent or pacing, Sarkies and co-scenarist Graham Tetley introduce the village itself waking up to a sunny early summer day, catching various townies going through their usual paces.

It doesn’t take long, however, to pick out the odd man out — middle-aged Gray (Matthew Sunderland). Appearing reclusive and paranoid, he ventures from his dingy shack to ride his bicycle then a bus to the gun store at a nearby larger burg. We later discover, however, that he’s already got a regular arsenal housed in his refrigerator.

Half an hour in, what looks like the latest in a series of recurrent yelling matches between Gray and one neighbor –over Gray’s threatening behavior toward local kids — abruptly turns into a fatal shooting.

The perp then sets fire to the neighbor’s house, which has several children inside; one kid escapes, wounded, to get the first word out.

Drawn by the fire, a couple of elderly gawkers and a family in a passing truck are the next to make the mistake of stopping to see what the trouble is. Even after fleeing residents warn others that there’s a nut who “has a gun,” not everyone stays away.

Police and ambulances are soon on the way, but they are prevented from evacuating the people who are trapped, dead and wounded — some left bleeding on the ground for hours on end — by Gray, who shoots at anything that moves.

A couple of missed opportunities to bring him down leave the perp running loose around the area’s brush and homes as night falls. Authorities have little choice but to keep everyone locked down and hope he’ll resurface before doing more harm.

In the end, Gray appears to choose “suicide by police,” running from his gassed home (where he’d returned), screaming and waving a gun some hours later.

Pic makes no effort to explain or analyze his actions. Little remains known about him beyond a few ominous interests (gun collecting, survivalist literature) and suspicions that he may have been schizophrenic. But the focus here is not on the “why” but the “what,” as “Blue” vividly depicts the confusion, panic, horror, and even tedium of average folk waiting out a catastrophe without knowing quite what’s happened.

Mixed pro and non-pro thesps create a wholly natural sense of community, while dialogue, staging, editing and sparse use of music further underline unvarnished realism. The random way in which some residents became involved in the tragedy (or were fortunate enough not to) is shown by the script which avoids a traditional dramatic-arc emphasis on particular characters, though two do emerge as nominal leads: policeman Nick Harvey (Karl Urban from “Lord of the Rings”), one of the first on the scene, and Helen Dickson (72-year-old amateur Lois Lawn), a neighbor who crawled repeatedly along a drainage ditch to check on a wounded man despite having just had hip surgery.

Eventual realization of the toll that Gray exacted — including several very young children — is handled with wrenching restraint.

Design and tech contribs are all first-rate, with special kudos due Greig Fraser’s cinematography, which delivers all necessarily immediacy without caving to the current vogue for overly jittery hand-held work.

Out of the Blue

New Zealand

Production

A New Zealand Film Commission presentation in association with NZ On Air and TV3 of a Southern Light Films and Desert Road Films production. Produced by Tim White and Steven O'Meagher. Directed by Robert Sarkies. Screenplay, Graham Tetley, Sarkies, based on the book "Aramoana: 22 Hours of Terror" by Bill O'Brien.

Crew

Camera (color), Greig Fraser; editor, Annie Collins; music, Victoria Kelly; production designer, Phil Ivey; art director, Ken Turner; costume designer, Lesley Burkes-Harding; sound designer (Dolby Digital), Dave Whitehead; assistant director, Paul Grinder; casting, Rachel Bullock. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Discovery), Sept. 12, 2006. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Karl Urban, Matthew Sunderland, Lois Lawn, Simon Ferry, Tandi Wright, Paul Glover, William Kircher, Georgina Fabish, Fayth Rasmussen.

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more