Physics

Out of Blue review – Carol Morley conjures a cosmically uncanny noir | Film


Carol Morley’s Out of Blue is an intriguing and perplexing creation, starting with that title, from which the word “the” seems to have been removed, making what’s on offer sound like an impressionist painting or a classic jazz album, or some slangily described phenomenon of theoretical physics. It’s a lugubrious quasi-noir mystery set in modern-day New Orleans, starring a charismatic Patricia Clarkson as Detective Mike Hoolihan; a movie that sometimes seems papier-mâchéd together with layers of mannerism and pastiche, floating along like a two-hour dream sequence.

Morley has adapted Martin Amis’s 1997 novel Night Train, a hardboiled genre homage about a careworn female police officer tackling a homicide case so uniquely disturbing that it brings her to the edge of a breakdown. Amis had researched its exotically unusual tough-cop forms of speech (“I am a police”) from the writings of David Simon, creator of The Wire, although John Updike rather crushingly pulled rank on the British novelist in his review, dismissing “a number of American locutions new to this native speaker”.

Refreshingly, Morley doesn’t get bogged down in literary style, although this fiercely smart film-maker is always rightly concerned with what constitutes cinematic style and stylishness; she turns a beady eye on her own movie rhetoric and invites the audience to do the same. There is a dash of Nic Roeg here, particularly his Track 29, written by Dennis Potter – Roeg is thanked in the closing credits and the film is produced by his son Luc. The noir quality of Out of Blue, with its intimations of murky family shame, brings out echoes of John Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven or Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, and there is a woozy Lynchian dreaminess.

This is the most purely cerebral film Morley has made, especially as she has written out some of the human relationships in the novel: it is more cerebral than passionate, I think. It’s a puzzle, an enigma, an indefinitely receding mirage of a movie. That’s especially when you consider that Morley has in fact already made a film about a woman’s mysterious death and cast herself in the role of investigating officer: her masterly and urgently heartfelt 2011 documentary Dreams of a Life.

The comparison is not exact and Out of Blue is doing something different, rising to meet the ideas in the source material, to reflect on human pain and the human condition, and to relate this to the vast implacable mysteries of the universe. It sees how our existence is a tiny shard, a infinitesimal fragment thrown out by an impossibly distant cosmic detonation.

Clarkson’s Hoolihan is an excellent police officer and recovering alcoholic. She is called upon to investigate the grisly death of Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer) a brilliant astrophysicist who had been increasingly disturbed by her work on black holes, and has been found shot in the head in the observatory, right next to the telescope. Rockwell is the daughter of a Vietnam war veteran and business mogul, Tom Rockwell (James Caan), and his wife, Miriam (Jacki Weaver). In the frame for the killing are two of Jennifer’s academic colleagues: Duncan Reynolds (Jonathan Majors) and Ian Strammi (Toby Jones). But should Jennifer herself be added to the list of suspects?

And does culpability extend further, in some occult or transcendental sense, to those dark cosmic forces into whose gravitational orbit Jennifer had allowed herself to drift? Yet it could be the work of a common-or-garden serial killer, and Morley allows us to see that if Hoolihan allowed her hair to grow out to its natural blond, she would be very like the killer’s preferred female type.

We are being set up for a convention-defying finish. Those who like the clarity of an Agatha Christie or Raymond Chandler ending are going find this a challenge. I found some of this a bit exasperating and the repeated discussions of Schrödinger’s cat sounded like something stoned students might say. Yet Clarkson imposes her will on the screen and the dreamlike ending stayed stubbornly in my mind. Those untied narrative ends, if they are indeed untied, tripped me up every time I thought about them. A flawed film, but a valuable one.



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