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BFI London Film Festival 2018 Review: Out Of Blue – “Flashes of brilliance”

Carol Morley is an investigator behind the camera; it’s the common thread that runs through her films. From the fragments of memories from her own life in The Alcohol Years, piecing together the mysterious death of Joyce Vincent in Dreams of a Life and the fever-dream portrait of trauma and mass psychogenic illness in The Falling – she tells stories of unknown, misunderstood and overlooked women.

Out Of Blue is the most overtly investigative film of them all, a neo-noir set New Orleans where astrophysics collides with human crisis. Based on the Martin Amis novel ‘Night Train’, the film is a curious part cerebral, part pulp thriller hybrid.

The film begins with a pop-science lecture in which astrophysicist Dr Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer) imparts nuggets of her work on the multiverse and telling us “we are all made of stars”. Dr Rockwell is then found dead, in a grisly crime scene with curious artefacts strewn close to her body. Tasked with investigating the murder is Detective Mike Hoolihan, a fabulously grungy Patricia Clarkson.

Hoolihan is a no-nonsense cop with a traumatic past. She inhabits a lot of the “not playing by the book” tropes we’re used to seeing by men in her position. Clarkson’s charisma shakes off some of the more clichéd aspects of the film.

The police-procedural beats of the investigation are far less interesting than the mystery of who Mike Hoolihan is. Is her attitude and addictive behaviour shaped by nihilism? existentialism? or early psychological trauma. Answers are teased through flashes of sinister repeated images, but ambiguity floats like stardust.

As Hoolihan eyes up her prime suspects and people of interest including Toby Jones (underused as a creepy British academic Ian Strammi), and Dr Rockwell’s boyfriend, Duncan Reynolds (Jonathan Majors) or perhaps an unknown copycat serial killer – the central mystery becomes less of a ‘whodunnit’ and more of ‘why dunnit’.

There are flashes of brilliance within Out Of Blue. Occasional moments of absurdist humour add some levity to the all the dark matter, a scene involving Jacki Weaver as the late Dr Rockwell’s wealthy and frustrated mother is a gem. However, it’s the bigger picture that doesn’t quite work. Concepts come at the expense of characterisation, and much of the film’s exploration of astrophysics and quantum theory sounds a bit like extracts from a Ted Talk.

Shades of David Lynch run through the film, and it’s shot through with Morley’s eye for arresting, dreamlike imagery from the cosmic to the candid: shining stars and scattered marbles spill across the screen. The multiple layers of the Out Of Blue don’t all quite work together, but perhaps a collision of ideas and loose threads is exactly the point after all.

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