Out of Blue (2018) by Carol Morley
Review by Andrew Swafford
In Out of Blue, the inimitable Patricia Clarkson plays a detective investigating the shooting of a astrophysicist who dedicated her life to the study of black holes. The synopsis reads that this causes her to be “affected in ways she struggles to comprehend”--and it is, likewise, a movie that is hard to explain.
I went to see Carol Morley’s Out of Blue because of how much I loved her last feature, The Falling--that film introduced me to two of my favorite young actors (Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams) and featured a pseudo-subliminal editing style that I had never seen before and have never seen since. I was primed for something strange, and was surprised when what I got initially felt...ordinary. So ordinary, in fact, that I felt like I was watching a TV cop show for a little while--Law and Order or Criminal Minds--and starring a two-time Emmy-winning actress, no less! But as the film progressed, it got curiouser and curiouser. Not “strange,” per se, but uncanny: pauses in conversation scenes would linger just a little bit too long, and certain insert shots felt just a little bit out of place.
The film eventually clicked for me as something truly Lynchian in the way that Lynch is Lynchian, not the way his imitators are: it takes a form we’re intimately familiar with (maybe so familiar that we think of it as “low”) and twists it ever so slightly until new dimensions become apparent. In the original Twin Peaks, Lynch played with the Soap Opera form; in The Return, Lynch played with that of so-called “Prestige TV,” the Soaps of the present era. I think Out of Blue does the same with the Cop Drama, making tweaks so subtle you might not even notice them.
In The Falling, Morley spliced in reality breaking images three distinct frames at a time--the smallest number of frames able to be detected by the human eye. The effect is such that if you watch The Falling with someone, they may see different images than you do. Considering that Morley proved herself in that film as someone interested in working on subverting film-reality on such a near-undetectable, molecular level, it makes perfect sense to me that Out of Blue would continue that project.
Here, she plays not only with genre form but also with narrative chronology, playing on the assumption we all make as audience members that the images we see are part of the same linear sequence. In Out of Blue, this is not always so. Something as simple as an insert shot of an object lying on the ground may be an intrusion from a reality running parallel to that of the protagonist. Perhaps this is to be expected considering all the talk of black holes and alternate dimensions in the film’s exposition, but the package it’s contained within makes for a truly uncanny experience. As I explained on the podcast, if you imagine a cop show that slowly morphs back into classic noir and then slowly morphs into Annihilation, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Out of Blue: the unexpected.
Upon leaving the theater and looking through Letterboxd reviews and Twitter reactions, I was saddened to see Out of Blue almost universally panned as a film that “didn’t work.” A recent episode of the Film Comment podcast framed it as a movie so bad that it has to be seen to be believed--complete with a mocking impression of Patricia Clarkson talking about stardust. And while I don’t think the film is as powerful as it might be (it doesn’t hit the highs of The Falling for me) and it may take itself a bit too seriously at times, I think this is a film that merits closer inspection. I’d wager a guess that most folks who don’t think the film holds together aren’t seeing the intent: this is ultimately a cosmic noir, in which things are supposed to float apart, not come together.