LFF review: ‘Out of Blue’ is frustratingly clichéd
12 October 2018 16:05
Watching Carol Morley’s Out of Blue I found myself wondering whether it’s possible to make an original noir anymore. What do you do when you’re working within a genre that relies so heavily on certain tropes and signifiers for it to work? How do you work with these without making something that comes across as hackneyed and lazy? The British director’s latest film—adapted from Martin Amis’s 1997 novel Night Train—is a moody, stylized thriller about a murder investigation in New Orleans that, despite ticking all the necessary boxes, ultimately left me a little bored.
Patricia Clarkson plays Mike Hoolihan, a homicide detective and recovering alcoholic whose own demons become increasingly entangled in the crime she’s trying to solve. At the beginning of the film, she’s called to the scene of a gruesome death at the city’s observatory; a woman’s been found with a gunshot wound to her face. The victim is Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer), a beautiful astrophysics professor who specialized in the study of black holes. This is the first police procedural I’ve seen that includes discussions about theoretical physics, and it’s a tad jarring. When another physicist tries to explain Schrödinger’s cat to Mike, she’s unimpressed. In her experience, she says, whatever’s in a box is usually dead. Don’t even get me started on the oft-repeated refrain that we’re all made of ‘stardust’.
Clarkson, as ever, is excellent. As frustrating as I found the story, I never tired of her performance. The problem is that her character’s a stereotype we’ve seen plenty of times before. She’s the detective who’s married to the job. “My whole life’s been homicide,” she says towards the beginning of the film, just to make this absolutely clear. She becomes too invested in the case, overly identifying with the victim, and won’t give up on her hunches. And Clarkson’s not the only actor who’s been shortchanged. The wonderful Toby Jones plays one of Jennifer’s colleagues—he’s the one who discovers her body and thus becomes Mike’s first suspect—but it’s only a minor role, and I couldn’t help wishing that Morley had done something more with his character; it seemed like such a waste of great talent. Jacki Weaver is also a standout as Jennifer’s heartbroken mother, her grief played with a wide-eyed mania that reminded me of Grace Zabriskie as Sarah Palmer in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. This is just one of many Lynchian echoes, but I guess it makes sense that a film that deals with the theory of parallel realities might itself present the kind of slightly off-kilter world that Lynch has proved himself the master of.
As Mike pursues her investigation, the narrative becomes increasingly woozy and dream-like, something that’s complicated by the fact she seems to be both hallucinating and recovering memories of old trauma at the same time. Jennifer’s boyfriend is the obvious suspect, but the crime bears uncanny similarities to some old cold cases, murders committed by a serial killer with a penchant for blonde victims who was never caught. Although not entirely successful, there is a lot to admire and be intrigued by here. Out of Blue shows ambitious vision, some great acting, striking cinematography—especially the fittingly bruised blue-toned night shots—not to mention a haunting soundtrack from Clint Mansell, all jazz-inspired swells of sound that help urge the action on; it’s just a shame the clichéd narrative doesn’t live up to the rest of it.