Carol Morley’s new film is a little out of sorts too
Carol Morley literally, figuratively and metaphysically aims for the stars in Out of Blue. Her beguiling neo-noir places the death of an astrophysicist at the centre of a story based on Martin Amis’ novel Night Train. Morley’s work is never anything less than ambitious and her latest film is no different, although strangely, it may also be her most accessible.
It stars Patricia Clarkson as a detective who appears to be the typical hardboiled type – although there are signs that all the grisly murders she has dealt with over the years are starting to take their toll. The intro drifts across the universe down to Earth, and Morley then continues to bend the narrative across the cosmos, weaving in references to Schrödinger’s cat (over-explained to the point of annoyance) astrophysics and quantum physics, all the while mixing in traditional noir tropes.
The story is set in modern day New Orleans with the city seen through the eyes of Clarkson’s recovering alcoholic homicide detective, Mike Hoolihan. The death of Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer) should be just another case amongst hundreds of others, but for someone who never flinches at a crime scene, Hoolihan is visibly disturbed when she arrives.
Suspects are thrown into the investigation including Jennifer’s secret lover, Prof. Majors (Duncan J. Reynolds), colleague Prof. Strammi (Toby Jones) and her own father, Col. Tom Rockwell (James Caan). Yet, it’s the items found at the crime scene – a face cream and a mysterious blue bead – that continue to haunt the detective. News reporter Stella Honey (Devyn A. Taylor) asks Hoolihan (or maybe it was Hoolihan to herself, or simply imagined) “You search for the truth in others but your own life is a mystery?” referencing her lack of knowledge about her childhood.
Beautifully scored by Clint Mansell, Out of Blue quickly finds its noir mood, and is given considerable support by DoP Conrad W. Hall’s warm amber hues and musty lighting that creates an ambience so thick it feels almost impenetrable. New Orleans is beautifully rendered through Hall’s lens and Morley avoids taking in the usual sights and sounds commonly associated with the city without losing any of its enigmatic essence.
Talk of dark matter and our place in the universe sees Hoolihan fall into a psychological black hole, drifting between realities as Lynchian influences slowly form a meta-narrative. She is facing up to a personal crisis as the past she has avoided for so long threatens to collide with Jennifer’s case. Out of Blue slowly becomes something of a puzzle box with duality existing almost everywhere you look, and masks becoming symbolic of the secrets being hidden by many of the characters.
Ultimately Jennifer’s death serves as more of a distraction from what Morley’s film is really about. The intertwining of the narrative with cosmic themes is expansive and bold but they sit awkwardly inside the murder/personal mystery Hoolihan is trying to solve. Clarkson’s wonderfully grounded performance adds to the intoxicating atmosphere and for a time this, and the increasingly dense plot, feel like it will be enough to overcome its storytelling problems.
Morley unexpectedly decides to turn literal in the last 20 minutes, aiming for emotional stakes that never land. The vagueness that was there for two-thirds of the film dissipates into melodrama and in doing so casts an even brighter light on its other faults. It seems like an odd choice given the aloofness that usually characterises Morley’s style, suddenly turning a story largely filled with head-scratching ideas into something a little too easy to digest. In the grand scheme of things that is no bad thing as Morley is a director who deserves wider exposure, but it only leaves behind a sense of regret about how good this really could’ve been.
There are still tickets available to watch Out of Blue at this year’s London Film Festival and you can buy them on the BFI website.
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