Based on the Martin Amis novel Night Train, Carol Morley’s Out of Blue is a metaphysical neo-noir with a world-weary performance from Patricia Clarkson. Detective Mike Hoolihan (Clarkson) is investigating the mysterious death of an astrophysicist, Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer).
As the investigation and Jennifer’s research begin to fray at Hoolihan’s nerves, she disappears down a rabbit hole of quantum realities. It’s clear something is awry when the usually seasoned Hoolihan is visibly shocked by the crime scene. Rockwell’s body is the centrepiece of an almost-artful arrangement of objects: a lone sock, the gun that killed her and a mysterious blue bead. While the murder weapon is of more immediate interest to the investigation, it’s clear that the bead will hold the key to unlocking a deeper mystery.
Set in New Orleans, Morley has stated that she wanted to avoid replicating the typical tourist-friendly version of the city, shooting Hoolihan’s world at ground level with the organic familiarity of a local. In its near-anonymity, the city is rendered authentically, the jazz drums of the soundtrack thematically tying the noirish tone to the setting. Meanwhile, Conrad Hall’s moody cinematography evokes smooth, cool textures and a sense of weariness baked into the city itself. Here is a New Orleans made of psychological pasts as much as physical histories.
At the centre of Out of Blue is Clarkson’s turn as Hoolihan, playing against type in a traditionally masculine role. Clarkson bringing with her a psychological reality to Hoolihan’s alcoholism that goes beyond the typical Chandler-esque renditions of the hard-boiled detective, and as the mystery reaches its crescendo, our understanding of and empathy towards Hoolihan only deepens, concluding in that all-too-rare moment for cinematic detectives: vulnerability.
Out of Blue’s major problem is its tentative relationship with quantum physics. The blue bead that Hoolihan finds at the crime scene has its double in the night sky – a blue orb being consumed by the fire of its orange twin, in a vision that the detective returns to throughout the film. But following Jennifer’s death, Hoolihan doesn’t exactly plunge into the realm of quantum metaphysics so much as tentatively dip her toes in. Much humour is to be had from her stubbornly literal interpretation of the Schrödinger’s Cat problem, but the screenplay’s constant revisiting of this and the famous two-slit experiment smacks of a Wikipedia-level understanding of the subject.
Worse, the theme is never dramatised in any meaningful way – the investigation’s conclusion has very little indeed to do with the multiple realities that Jennifer’s research posits, and Hoolihan’s solution is only tenuously connected in the sense that it is her unique perspective that changes the outcome. In the end, Out of Blue undeniably works as a stylish, psychological neo-noir, but significantly less so as metaphysical rumination.
The Toronto International Film Festival 2018 takes place from 6-16 September.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell