Out of Blue

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Patricia Clarkson plays troubled detective Mike in Carol Morley’s Out of Blue

Mike Hoolihan is my kind of detective. She dresses like Johnny Cash, rarely smiles and the only adornment in her sparse bedroom is a picture of Patti Smith.

Played by Patricia Clarkson with incredible stillness, she has driven and walked the streets of New Orleans with her nose to the ground, like many film detectives before her. But the case of astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell, who is found dead, her face blown off, in the observatory where she worked, forces Mike to start looking upwards — and inwards. This takes the film into very different territory from your average film noir.

Director Carol Morley, who also made the intriguing 2014 film The Falling, has taken source material from Martin Amis’s 1997 novel Night Train, but her adaptation is so loose as to make something completely different. The simple whodunit element is resolved early on, but for Mike the question of why Jennifer died — and how her death connects to Mike’s own past — is more important.

Mike is a successful detective who has spent her adult life scrutinising details, but who can’t remember her own childhood or why she ended up in care. Something about the crime scene awakens her as if from a dream — though what follows is dreamlike itself, recalling the work of David Lynch and Nicolas Roeg.

Mike remembers details about the crime scene that aren’t in the photos; she regularly meets up with a journalist who may or may not actually exist (but who introduces an excellent phrase, “jamais vu”, meaning the opposite of déjà vu — seeing something you’ve seen before in a completely new way).

In her interrogations and interviews of the various suspects and family members Mike finds herself returning to philosophical concepts and thought experiments that flow from Jennifer’s work studying black holes. I have to admit any reference to Schrödinger’s Cat turns me right off — largely because most such discussions take place between people who don’t understand enough about quantum physics (myself included) to draw anything meaningful from it even metaphorically.

Out of Blue is a meditation on trauma and the act of looking. Morley is here preoccupied with observation, the effects of different people looking at the same situation, and whether the act of looking actually changes what is observed.

On another level it is also a film about professional women being good at their jobs, despite the extra strain of caring responsibilities or various traumas related to being a woman in a sexist world.

It is an intriguing film and one that will likely perplex some viewers, but I have found myself thinking about it ever since seeing it, which is always a good thing.