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Part murder-mystery, part esoteric cosmological rumination, part metaphysical neo-noir, Carol Morley's Out of Blue is a complete shambles. That this is so gives me no pleasure at all, as I'm a big fan of both Dreams of a Life (2011) and The Falling (2014). Dreams, in particular, was a seismic gut punch of a movie, beautifully made, and thoroughly sobering. I saw Morley do Q&As for both films at the Dublin International Film Festival, and I've always found her to be articulate and insightful, so I was really looking forward to Out of Blue. Loosely based on Martin Amis's 1997 novel Night Train, the film wears its influences very much on its sleeve, primarily Nicolas Roeg (whose son, Luc Roeg serves as a producer) and David Lynch. Obviously designed as a puzzle, the story only ever seems half-formed, as if we're seeing it through gauze. Mixing tones, themes, and styles, the film tries to be many things at once, but ultimately ends up being none of them; far too simplistic to be a fully realised examination of the nature of existence, far too predictable to be a whodunnit, far too clichéd to be a noir.
Set in New Orleans in an unspecified time period, the film begins with rising astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer), an expert on black holes and a proponent of the multiverse theory, giving a lecture on how humans are "made of stardust". The following morning, her body is found in the observatory in which she worked, shot three times. Homicide detective Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson), a recovering alcoholic who lives for the job, lands the case. As she starts investigating, she learns that Jennifer had become increasingly disturbed by the nature of her research into black holes. The daughter of Vietnam War veteran and wealthy businessman, Colonel Tom Rockwell (James Caan), and his wife, Miriam (Jacki Weaver), Jennifer had a fraught relationship with her parents, and many of her colleagues. Soon, Hoolihan has two main suspects; Jennifer's shifty and seemingly perpetually nervous boss, Professor Ian Strammi (Toby Jones) and her boyfriend/colleague, Duncan Reynolds (Jonathan Majors), who, upon finding out that Jennifer is dead, doesn't ask "how" or "when", but "why". The investigation will ultimately involve quantum mechanics, dark matter, string theory, Schrödinger's cat, and the double-slit experiment, as well as forcing Hoolihan to confront a childhood trauma she has repressed, of which the murder seems to be evoking flashbacks, and an unsolved serial killer case from the 1970s; the ".38 Killer", who always killed women that looked a lot like Jennifer.
I haven't read the Amis novel on which the film is based, so I don't know if Morley has been successful in transplanting the tone to film, but irrespective of that, Out of Blue attempts to connect the relative mundanity of human suffering to the vast unknowable mysteries of the universe. On the surface, this is quite similar to what Terrence Malick does in The Tree of Life (2011). However, whereas Malick was essentially making the point that the birth of a galaxy is analogous with the birth of a child and that spirituality and science are not mutually exclusive, Morley sets our existence as a random and infinitesimal fragment in the impossible-to-conceive-of enormity of the universe.
Although ostensibly set in a realistic milieu, the film has an undercurrent of Lynchian weirdness that seems to place it just ever so slightly outside normality, with Morley intermixing her larger metaphysical concerns with a mundane whodunnit. To be fair, she does give us clues that the murder investigation is not where the audience should be focused; for example, when Hoolihan first arrives at the crime scene, as a detective is briefing her, the sound fades out and the camera moves away, suggesting the details of the crime are irrelevant. However, this doesn't change the fact that the predictable outcome of the investigation has virtually nothing whatsoever to do with black holes and the multiverse, with the reveal of the killer seemingly overriding the film's more esoteric themes. Audiences will be left asking such questions as why is there so much information on Jennifer's research; is it all just an elaborate MacGuffin; is it simply that Morley was unable to find a way to dramatize it, thereby integrating the two strands of the film? The idea is obviously that in searching for the killer, Hoolihan is essentially discovering herself, played out against the backdrop of infinity, but the film never addresses why we should care, as it doesn't actually say anything interesting or significant about the connection between humanity and the strange goings-on of space-time.
The quotidian nature of the whodunnit isn't helped by the fact that much of the acting is questionable, which seems unbelievable given the cast. Jackie Weaver appears to be in a completely different film to everyone else; James Caan is simply doing an imitation of John Huston in Chinatown (1974); Devyn A. Tyler as novice reporter Stella Honey, and Todd Mann and Brad Mann as Jennifer's creepy twin brothers never manage to escape the archetypal noir parameters of the characters they play; Yolanda T. Ross and Aaron Tveit, as Hoolihan's boss and colleague, respectively, are basically extras; even Patricia Clarkson struggles with breathing life into the material, although it's certainly unfortunate that the film is being released not so long after Karyn Kusama's infinitely superior Destroyer (2018), in which Nicole Kidman gives a similar performance. Much of the problem, however, lies with Morley's script, rather than the actors. Essentially refusing to allow the audience any kind of emotional connection with the characters, Morley instead reduces the performances to shouting and clichés. There is one excellent scene in which Hoolihan gets drunk and takes off her clothes onstage at a strip club, and it's excellent because it's the one scene where Clarkson is allowed to engage with the audience at an emotional level, evoking both shock and pity.
Even the always-excellent Clint Mansell is off his game, with his score failing to provide much in the way of texture or nuance, and occasionally seeming to actively work against what we're seeing. On the other hand Conrad W. Hall's cinematography is excellent, flattening New Orleans in the background, and essentially creating an oppressive and generic geographical location that could be anywhere and is always just out of reach, something which works in tandem with Hoolihan's repressed memories.
With the identity of the killer proving so banal (and just so predictable), the film essentially tasks its metaphysical component with doing all the heavy lifting, and this certainly does seem to be Morley's main concern. However, despite creating a dream-like narrative, always receding from the viewer, Morley can't cut loose of the shackles of genre, with the film's last act falling back on melodrama and unlikely coincidences. Ultimately, we're left with a film where nothing emerges fully formed. If it's really about Hoolihan's existential discovery of self, why is psychological nuance utterly absent? If it's a murder mystery, why is it so predictable and trite? If it's an esoteric rumination about eternity and the universe, why are so many of the necessary components presented in such a simplistic manner? Morley's themes and tones end up tripping over and undermining one another, as she singularly fails to integrate the metaphysical concepts with the murder plot. All in all, it's a misfire for a heretofore promising director.
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