Some murder mysteries begin with murders; some begin with Mamie Gummer giving a lecture on a rooftop, arguing that all life springs from death, all death springs from life, and 90% of matter is invisible. “You can tell a lot by looking,” she tells her students. But in the world of “Out of Blue,” it’s the telling that takes up most of the running time, and it’s a little monotonous, if we’re being honest.
Patricia Clarkson stars as Mike Hoolihan, a detective investigating the death of astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (Gummer), who was shot in an observatory shortly after that opening lecture. Rockwell’s death is no ordinary murder. It looks suspiciously like the work of the never-captured but long since retired “.38 Caliber Killer.” And all of the suspects are spacey intellectuals who pontificate about highfalutin concepts like Schrödinger’s cat and alternate realities when they should be telling her what the heck their alibis are.
Mike’s investigation leads her from one starry-eyed scientist to another, and into the troubled Rockwell family, ruled by war-hero industrialist politician Col. Tom Rockwell (James Caan) and endured by his unhappy wife Miriam (Jacki Weaver). But more importantly, Mike finds herself noticing strange details that nobody else sees, like phantom bottles of hand cream, and eventually begins to question her sanity now that her head is full of lofty ideas about her place in the universe.
“Out of Blue” has a lot on its mind, and it’s a shame that the audience isn’t one of them. Every piece of information seems tailor-made for Mike, but there’s very little to entice the viewer. The characters in writer-director Carol Morley’s film, adapted from the novel “Night Train” by Martin Amis, seem to exist solely for Mike’s benefit. They give her the information she needs, and they expand her horizons, but aside from generalized grief and the most existential of crises, their general experiences lack interests, motivation, humor, sensuality, jealousy, or any of the other human qualities that typically get stirred up when dead bodies enter our lives and detectives start poking around.
Clarkson, typically one of the finest actors working, brings a weariness to Mike that makes sense for “Out of Blue.” She’s been living an aggressively unexamined existence and admits that she either can’t remember or chooses never to think about her life before she joined the police department. She’s a smart and experienced person, but apparently she’s never heard of some relatively popular scientific concepts, like the aforementioned Schrödinger’s cat, which strains credulity. “Out of Blue” is a high-minded film full of lofty ideas. If this is anyone’s first exposure to science, they’re already in over their head, and that goes for the audience as well as the protagonist.
Morley works with cinematographer Conrad W. Hall (“Olympus Has Fallen”), who seems eager to give “Out of Blue” a conventional detective movie aesthetic, only to subvert it with trippy astronomical imagery and absurdist imagery, like a woman in impeccable period attire gliding on a Segway. The cleverness of the film’s editing, by Alex Mackie (“Mary Shelley”), doesn’t reveal itself until later in the film, when the parallels finally close together. But the problem with holding everything back until the finale is that, before then, you’re holding everything back.
It’s hard to tell for much of “Out of Blue” just where this mystery is going, and repeated references to heady sci-fi ideas like doppelgängers might be a little too intriguing for the film’s own good. The mind swirls with all the endless possibilities inherent to the set-up, and instead the film trudges to a dour conclusion that explores the story’s baseline themes — the intimate connection between death and life and the destructive quality of observation — but still feels like a letdown, because we felt so very little getting there.
“Out of Blue” is a detached motion picture, and it’s hard to get away with that clinical approach and still adhere to a thriller format. Morley’s film hits a lot of the familiar murder-mystery beats and comes close to subverting them, drawing parallels between police work and the scientific method, and in particular the quest for motive and the quest for meaning in a vast, amorphous and unfeeling universe. What an ambitious and fascinating starting point for a movie, but even the film doesn’t seem particularly passionate about it.
At its best, “Out of Blue” captures a slightly intoxicated “eureka” sensation, as the whole detective genre transforms elegantly into a philosophical awakening, and as the greatest threat comes not from a murderer but from our protagonist’s sense of self (or lack thereof). At its worst, which is most of the time, it’s a conventional detective story that resorts to lengthy scientific-namedropping when it probably should be getting on with it instead.