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Non-Review Review: Out of Blue

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Out of Blue is just awful.

Carol Morley is an intensely talented director. Dreams of a Life is a fascinating documentary, exploring a harrowing true story with empathy and compassion. However, Out of Blue seems to get away from her. Morley is directing a screenplay that she adapted from Night Train, Martin Amis’ darkly comic parody of detective fiction. Indeed, Out of Blue seems to carry over some of the parodic intention of the source material in its better moments, playing as deranged and heightened homage to detective movie clichés. However, there is also a sense that Out of Blue is taking all of this very seriously underneath it all, that it is unwilling to commit to “the bit” and that it confuses its own pseudo-profundity for actual insight.

Even if Out of Blue never actually functions as a cinematic narrative, there is some fun to be hand with certain stretches of it. There’s enough in Out of Blue that it almost plays as investigative thriller pastiche; a knowing and heightened riff on the familiar formulas of sordid investigative thrillers. There are stretches when Out of Blue plays like the kind of weird and esoteric object that a view might find playing on Adult Swim in the early hours of the morning, couched between episodes of NTSF:SD:SUV and playing opposite Angie Tribeca. The dialogue is so hardboiled that it could be used as murder weapon, the insights into the human condition so laboured that they’ve been granted health insurance.

The biggest issue with Out of Blue is that it never seems to be “in” on the joke.

There are a handful of small joys to be found in Out of Blue, mostly in how much pleasure it seems to take from running through the big book of film noir clichés. Supporting characters luxuriate in using the protagonist’s full name, “Mike Hoolihan”, a name that conjures up images of Venetian blinds in silhouette and the scent of cigarette smoke drifting in the air. There’s the pseudo-profound attempts to render the subtext of such noir stories as supra-text, with one character remaining to Hoolihan, “You detect other people’s lives, but your own remains a mystery.” Even the basic premise of the film, in which a murder at a university physics department leads a grizzled detective to delve into more existential matters than usual, has a certain giddy thrill to it.

Of course, none of this quite works as out-and-out comedy. Out of Blue plays everything just a little bit too straight for these elements to coalesce into a knowing interrogation of the genre. Out of Blue hits far too many of its more cliché and overly familiar beats head-on, as if demanding that fractured traumatic flashbacks to earlier crimes and earnest lectures on how every person is made of stardust should be taken at face value. “Did you know that you hand could come from a different star than your nose?” characters ask repeatedly over the course of the film, apparently even more amazed than the last time that they heard the fact articulated. The problem with Out of Blue is that it seems to believe this statement is profound rather than pretentious.

To be fair, this is a problem, but it is not a fatal flaw. It is possible to have fun with this set-up, to play with both genre conventions and audience expectations. The casting of Patricia Clarkson should be able to get this film halfway home. With her distinctive drawl and no-nonsense material, Clarkson is almost perfectly suited to the sort of washed up and falling apart archetypes that tend to populate such films; hard nosed, hard drinking, hard boiled. Unfortunately, Clarkson stuck without any support from the script. The film makes the perplexing decision to reduce Hoolihan to a puzzlebox rather than to treat her as a character. It doesn’t help matters that the puzzle is remarkably easy to solve for anybody who has ever seen a detective film before.

There are other promising elements that are very quickly smothered. Clint Mansell’s score seems to recognise the film is a parody, perhaps drawing from the tone of the source material. Drawing upon the film’s New Orleans setting and its genre elements, Mansell’s soundtrack has a very familiar jazz rhythm to it. Trumpets seem to drift in and out of the mix, casting a depressing shadow over everything. However, this almost playfully stereotypical noir soundtrack exists at odds with writing and direction that plays its pseudo-profundity far too seriously. Mansell’s score seems as lost as Clarkson, and as tonally off-centre, albeit in a much different way.

Ultimately, though, Out of Blue is dragged down by a lot of smaller choices. The most striking and infuriating is the bargain basement “Lynch in the Bayou” vibe, which draws heavily from the iconography and imagery of David Lynch without embracing his surreality. As with many of Lynch’s film, the central mystery is more psychological and existential than literal, but Morley never manages to capture the sublime quality that elevates Lynch’s material. Instead, Out of Blue plays its homage depressingly straight, offering several extended sequences of beautiful blonde murder victims singing fifties classics against a backdrop that could easily have been lifted from a wholesome high school prom.

Out of Blue is clearly aiming for an uncanny quality, trying to come at the detective genre from a skewed angle. However, none of these additions feel particularly fresh. Instead, these elements all feel like they were grabbed from a bargain basement thrift score. At several points in Out of Blue, characters disappear in the middle of scenes, leaving Hoolihan disoriented and confused. The character is haunted by flashbacks and images that seem to at once evoke the current crime and conjure up traumas long buried. One of the more hackneyed plot beats involves the revelation that at least one major character exists inside the mind of another, and the dialogue.

It is possible to blend a familiar procedural structure to weird fiction in the way that Out of Blue is attempting. The first season of True Detective captured the public’s imagination by hybridising one form of pulp thriller with another, inserting Lovecraftian elements into an otherwise prestige crime show. There is a long line of these sorts of explorations of genre, both in film and television; Silence of the Lambs is a gothic horror as much as a forensic thriller, Millennium alternated between biblical apocalyptic nightmare and serial-killer-of-the-week, even Twin Peaks spiralled outwards from the murder of a beautiful young girl into something decidedly more abstract and surreal. The issue isn’t what Out of Blue is attempting, the issue is the quality of it all.

This lack of quality is reflected in a variety of ways, but perhaps most obviously in the dialogue. Leaving aside the film’s so-purple-it-looks-like-it-might-pass-out prose, even minor exchanges between characters seem stilted and forced. Breaking into an office in search of evidence, Hoolihan declares, “Look at this. Look at this!” She holds up a phone to a picture, the zoom turned up high. Her scene partner is not convinced by the theatrics. “What?” he protests. “Through the eyes of a f&!kin’ crazy lady cop?” This is one of the movie’s more successful exchanges. The rhythms and flows of the characters’ speech seem off, but not to the point that they are stylised as they might be in a Quentin Tarantino or Yorgos Lanthimos film. The result is that the dialogue occupies an uncanny valley.

However, even outside of individual lines, there is a larger problem with how characters talk in Out of Blue. Every piece of dialogue in the film is ridiculously over-signified. Most notably, the investigation into a murder in a university physics department hinges on a video of the victim talking about needing to trace energy “like a trail of clues, leading to the heart of this dark matter.” There are no points for guessing that she’s not talking about physics, even though it takes Hoolihan an embarrassing amount of time to catch on. Characters are repeatedly likened to interstellar phenomenon, the killer in the film ultimately suggested to be a black hole. Allegorically, of course.

Again, it’s not entirely awful. Some shades of self-awareness creep in around the edges. Notably in the way in which the film at least affords its characters some variation in their ability to craft heavy-handed metaphors and similes. At one point, suspecting that the victim might have killed herself, Hoolihan confronts the twin brothers. They do not react well to the insinuation. “You’re sayin’ our sister killed herself, but it’s almost like she killed everyone around her,” protests one of her pair. That feels like a consciously overwrought and melodramatic line, a conscious spoof of the heightened conventions of these sorts of stories. Unfortunately, it doesn’t justify all of the other dialogue.

Out of the Blue is a bad film. However, it finally reaches its apotheosis in a third act that moves breathtakingly quickly from an attempted suicide towards a revelation that can be described (entirely accurately) as “Schrodinger’s Sexual Predator.” This is quite possibly the worst scene of the year to this point. It’s not just a ham-fisted and insensitive reveal of something that should be handled tenderly and with compassion, but also a plot beat which hinges on Hoolihan using the first metaphor that springs to mind when confronted with an immensely traumatic revelation. That metaphor, naturally, is the theoretical framwork of Schrodinger’s Cat, which serves as a running gag in the opening half of the film.

This is perhaps the first time that the concept has been applied to a case of sexual abuse. If the audience is lucky, it should be the last.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 1

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