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Film Review: ‘Out of Blue’

Quantum physics, detective noir and trauma procedural cook up into an inedible New Orleans gumbo in Carol Morley's overreaching misfire.

Carol Morley
Patricia Clarkson, Jacki Weaver, James Caan, Toby Jones, Mamie Gummer, Devyn Tyler, Yolonda Ross, Aaron Tveit, Jonathan Majors.

1 hour 50 minutes

Without necessarily admiring the result, one can admire the wackadoodle ambition of Carol Morley’s “Out of Blue” (the missing definite article is itself a salutary warning about a plot that will misplace a whole bunch of articles en route to its mystifying finale). It’s not every filmmaker, after all, who’ll toss astrophysics, metaphysics, Martin Amis, cop procedurals, recovered memories, serial killers, family tragedies and a whole dress-up chest of unlikely costumes and props into the stratosphere on just her third narrative feature, and it’s the sort of reckless abandon we ought to applaud. But rather like Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment, which is laboriously outlined twice during this glitchy, shambolic affair, the resulting admixture exists in a quantum state. Schrödinger’s beleaguered cat is both alive and dead; “Out of Blue” is, at all times, both sort of interesting and quite bad — equal parts workaday homage to Nicolas Roeg (he is thanked, and his son Luc produces) and deranged cheese-dream episode of “CSI.”

Loosely based on the Martin Amis novel “Night Train” (thus allowing Amis to stand nearly shoulder to shoulder with Philip Roth in the pantheon of celebrated authors whose work has seldom successfully been translated to the big screen), “Out of Blue” starts with soon-to-perish astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer), daughter of wealthy industrialist Col. Tom Rockwell (James Caan) dreamily delivering a talk on the roof of a New Orleans observatory. Jennifer is an expert on black holes and the multiverse, though this particular lecture runs more along the sappy popular-science line “we are all made of stars.” Still, it introduces us to the character: a peekaboo blonde, styled in eccentrically vintage ’50s fashion with a scarf, red as a herring, knotted primly around her neck. That scarf — whether it exists or not, whether it’s from the past or the present, and where it went — along with a host of other gizmos of dubious object permanence like a man’s sock, a blue bead, a pot of face cream, a tacky brooch and an African mask, will clutter up the investigation into Jennifer’s violent death, which happens later that same night.

The investigation is led by Det. Mike Hoolihan played by Patricia Clarkson, and not since Jane Campion’s far superior though also unnecessarily sludgy “In the Cut” has a naturally vivacious actress been asked to turn down the wattage on her charisma so low. Yet, even in her no-maintenance mom-cut hair (dyed roadkill brown for reasons hinted to have something elusive to do with the Hitchockian blondeness of the film’s various female victims) and dowdy detective pant suits, Clarkson can’t help but exude a sort of glimmering intelligence, which is appropriate for her role as a personal-demon-riddled genius detective married to her job — but which makes all the more jarring some of the flatly stupid things her character has to say and do. This is a dedicated, well-respected career homicide detective with a sterling reputation as a closer, but she is floored by the idea that “your hand could come from one star and your head from another” and not because that is a frankly misleading summation of the nature of matter in the cosmos. And when she happens on her moment of inspiration that turns the whole case upside down, it’s inevitably one of those hokey, contrived “Wait, what did you just say?” moments in which our intrepid heroine identifies a kernel of truth in some random bit player’s offhand remark.

The case is already overcomplicated: Everyone Jennifer ever knew seems equally sinister and potentially guilty, from her mansplainy physicist boyfriend (Jonathan Majors); to her twitchy, wild-eyed mother (Jacki Weaver); to her identical twin adult brothers, forever finishing each other’s sentences (Brad & Todd Mann); to her snivelly boss Ian (Toby Jones); to her hat-wearing, cane-sporting father (Caan), who appears to have taken lessons in parental wholesomeness from John Huston’s “Chinatown” Father of the Year. But complicating things further is that something has triggered flashbacks to a childhood trauma Mike otherwise does not remember, hallucinations so vivid she’s not sure if the evidence she sees at the crime scene is really there or not, or even whether certain characters, like news reporter Stella Honey (Devyn A. Taylor) really exist.

If “Out of Blue” is meant sincerely, why is so little care given to psychology or plot? And if it’s meant as pastiche, why isn’t it more fun? The curious flatness of DP Conrad W. Hall’s images, a director clearly not on her home turf and a cast struggling to achieve as many as two dimensions in the characterizations of their cursory noir archetypes conspire so that even Clint Mansell’s decent, hardboiled score can’t invest the film with much in the way of texture or atmosphere or wit. And so all we’re really left with is a silly, convoluted story that fences with metaphysical concepts way above the pay grade of the average murder mystery, only to cherry pick those theories to serve an deeply average denouement. It makes one feel a little bit embarrassed for the multiverse.

Film Review: 'Out of Blue'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival, (Platform). Sept. 8, 2018. Running Time: 110 MIN.

Production: (U.K.-Ireland) An Independent Cannon and Morley Prods. production, in association with Ellenglaze Films, BFI Film Fund, BBC Films, The Electric Shadow Co., Dignity, Lip-sync Prods., Wellcome. (International Sales: Independent Film Sales, London) 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, Meroë Candy, Norman Merry, Peter Hampden.

Crew: Director: Carol Morley. Screenplay: Morley, based on the novel "Night Train" by Martin Amis. Camera (Color, widescreen): Conrad W. Hall. Editor: Alex Mackie. Music: Clint Mansell.

With: Patricia Clarkson, Jacki Weaver, James Caan, Toby Jones, Mamie Gummer, Devyn Tyler, Yolonda Ross, Aaron Tveit, Jonathan Majors.

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