Out of Blue - Film Review

Rating: 4

By Jason Solomons

British director Carol Morley’s first American film is her most ambitious work to date. There’s always been something intangible, almost slippery about her films – there was the wonderfully sad docu-drama Dreams of a Life, about the woman who died alone in her Wood Green flat and lay there undetected for 18 months; and the other-worldly girls’ school hysteria film The Falling, in which we discovered newcomer Florence Pugh.

Morley’s preference for unsolved mysteries continues simmering in her latest, a cosmically-influenced noir detective story set in modern New Orleans.

Patricia Clarkson is probably one of the most consistently interesting screen presences of the last 20 years, yet rarely is she given lead roles. Here, at last, she plays a seen-it-all cop called Mike Hoolihan (‘My whole life’s been homicide,’ she shrugs) who finds herself investigating the murder of an astrophysicist, scion of a powerful local family. 

However, amid southern-drawled talk of ‘stardust’ and ‘dark matter’, it’s Mike’s own universe that begins folding in on her as she gets drawn ever deeper into the murder and is forced to examine a previous case which still haunts her and the city.

There’s a lot of what you might call ‘Southern Gothic’ here, though without the Spanish moss on the trees, the street jazz or misty bayou stuff you usually get. Instead, this is about watching actors of the calibre and heft of James Caan, Toby Jones and Jacki Weaver on grotesque, sweaty form, and a heightened visual palette that hinges on symbols like a red scarf or a brooch, or the strains of Brenda Lee singing I’ll Be Seeing You. There are shades of Hitchcock, Tennessee Williams, a bit of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and, I thought, hints of Bertrand Tavernier’s forgotten James Lee Burke adaptation, In the Electric Mist.

Morley told me on the radio the other day this was a story the late Nic Roeg (Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth) was trying to adapt, from the original Martin Amis 1997 novel Night Train – and indeed Roeg’s son Luc (who played that lovely little boy in his dad’s great film Walkabout) acts as co-producer on Out of Blue. Even that title’s an oddity, like a printer that needs its toner changed, or a box of crayons missing a vital shade on the palette, or city known for its music that’s run out of sad notes to play. 

You can see Morley tip the wink to the mystical Roeg all over the film – it’s a mystery, all right, and you’re not quite sure what’s being investigated, nor if you’ll ever get the right answer. Particularly if you’re asking the wrong question. One minute, Hoolihan’s delving into a gruesome family history; the next, the trail seems to be leading back to herself. She’s at the end of her tether, for sure.

The layers of deceit and the sleight of hand might leave some viewers frustrated. Not me. You have to surrender to the atmosphere (and to Clint Mansell’s score), give yourself up to the strangeness and wade through the swamp of misogyny that disguises itself as politesse in Louisiana. 

The film’s like a powerful slug of bourbon poured into a sweet mint julep. And Patricia Clarkson’s just terrific.