Of all subgenres ready for reinvention, the gritty cop drama is one that has had decidedly mixed results. After the peaks and valleys of HBO’s True Detective’s intermittent quality and last year’s poetic but ill-scripted Destroyer, recent examples have flatlined as the now cliched titles that these examples have tried to undermine. Director Carol Morley’s Out of Blue is one hand the most uniquely psychologically conceived modern take on this cobwebbed material, submerging itself in the metaphysical as it solves the central mystery. One the other hand, it is sadly also the most embarrassing one as well.
The film stars the always compelling Patricia Clarkson as detective Mike Hoolihan, a recovering alcoholic with a shadowy past and lingering ennui. She investigates the death of astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (played by an avatar of Mamie Gummer), a woman of affluence and reportedly upbeat disposition. The investigation stirs in Hoolihan a reckoning of her past demons and illuminates a potential connection between Rockwell’s death and a former killer, all of it stooped in questions of the universe. It’s an admirably earnest attempt at the metaphysical where least expected, but also an unintentionally funny one as well.
Adapted from Martin Ames’ novella Night Train, the film is far too aesthetically stunted to capture the philosophical tone it attempts. Despite some evocative imagery of invasive crimsons and blues, the film looks as antiseptic as the most egregious genre knockoffs on basic cable. There are many misguided stabs at ambiance (like an Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting lit with enough candles to make the Phantom of the Opera’s lair seem modest) lending the film a goofiness that crushes any chance we might take the movie seriously.
But for all the sensual flatness, the film is really killed by a high degree of silliness so lacking in self-awareness that it also can’t be called a dull experience. Out of Blue is a film that gets pedantic about Schrödinger’s Cat on multiple occasions, languors awkwardly over starscapes, and features Jacki Weaver decimating a plate of chicken wings. There is something unexpected on a conceptual level in the film’s interest in interconnected pain and the cosmos, but its execution is so bluntly, performatively offhand that it feels as if the film has trapped us into a Twilight Zone episode that may or may not be a prank. It’s soulful braininess that’s cringe-inducingly without the brains.
Perhaps it’s partly the film’s existential intention, but I’m as certain that the mystery is revealed as I am uncertain of what exactly happened. The third act curlicues into its own bland confusion before petering out into oblivion, resulting in a mess as unfortunate as it is forgivable.
Unfortunately, it’s more of a failure in taste than in tone, with not even the ever absorbing Clarkson able to guide the ship to port. The film collapses on the screen like one that its creators envisioned with more ingenuity than they actually created it. As it’s credits roll over “Under the Milky Way”, The Church coos “I wish I knew what you were looking for…” and the feeling from the audience is mutual.