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‘Out of the Blue’ (review)

Out of the Blue is an American neo-noir directed by Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, The Wicker Man) and starring Ray Nicholson (Licorice Pizza), Diane Kruger (Inglorious Basterds), and Hank Azaria (Heat).

The film is a conscious attempt to marry LaBute’s verbal savagery to the form of classic film noir while taking heavy inspiration from the Hollywood run of erotic thrillers in the 1990’s.

Nicholson plays Connor, an ex-con librarian being leaned on hard by the town sheriff and probation officer Jock (Azaria). Connor is at first infatuated and then seduced by the gorgeous wife Marilyn of the richest man in town (Kruger).

As their affair deepens, Connor is convinced by Marilyn to kill her husband on a shopping trip. Connor concocts a “perfect murder” but, of course, complications abound in the film’s final act.

Noir is the Manichean opposite of the Western, and both are equally American.

In the classic noir, working class urban characters trapped by their faults and circumstances try to create a space for themselves in the world with their own audacity and desire and end up being destroyed for it. LaBute evokes the old films strongly with references to half a dozen classics both visual and explicit and even black-and-white interstitial titles between scenes.

This is consciously “a movie they don’t make anymore” and the great danger with those is always whether you can find the unique element in your film that makes the old moves worthwhile once more.

While watching Out of the Blue I was strongly reminded of both Lawrence Kasden’s Body Heat and Woody Allen’s Match Point which were both excellent films that used raw sexuality, postmodern literary awareness and a change of scenery to breathe new life into the classic noir moves. This film employs all those devices, not as successfully as those two films but they’re there, and finds a lot of mileage in its handsome digital cinematography of a sleepy New England haunt. Between that and the strong performances of the three leads who all feel energized by the classic material that’s sufficient to mark the film for recommendation.

That said, there are issues: the mechanism by which Connor is caught is telegraphed halfway into the film, all the supporting characters feel like they’re in a different, lesser, film and the film’s final twist both doesn’t feel earned and is so outrageous that its delivered with a kind of camp quality that the rest of the film doesn’t employ. The references to noir past also get somewhat tiresome by the end of the film– one or two are fine and they settle the audience into the cinematic context of the work they’re experiencing but when you deploy as many as this film does it feels an awful lot like showing off.

Where the film is strongest is the performances of the two leads: Nicholson employs a vulnerability and a smoldering rage beneath his outward politeness in the face of bureaucratic prejudice that allows the audience to believe not only that he could be talked into a crime like this but that he almost wants to be used up by it. His naked trust of Marilyn given his knowledge of the situation he’s in feels less like sexual domination and more like a desire to be released from the world of tough breaks he’s partially created for himself. Kruger is likewise great as the vamp right up until the moment of the final twist wherein she reveals herself to be a kind of cartoon villain and the performer is let down by the material.

LaBute’s specialties are mean spirited dialogue, villains who win, and plots that often invite the charge of misogyny but what struck me about this project was how distanced it was from his 90’s work, almost as if he’s using the cinematic pedigree of the old noirs to have fun with audience expectations and recharge his batteries as a writer.

Kruger’s Marilyn is less a cautionary tale (as femme fatales were in the 40’s) or a grotesque cosmic tormentor (as they became in the latter noir of the 50’s) as she is a playwright in her own right: constructing her own story with a willing doomed protagonist. The degree to which you’re willing to go along for the ride will depend greatly on how much nostalgia you have for the kinds of movies and novels that have inspired her, not in anything she’s internalized about the world we live in.

3 out of 5 stars.

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Berry Meyerowitz, Tara L. Craig
Written and Directed by Neil LaBute
Starring Diane Kruger, Ray Nicholson, Hank Azaria, Chase Sui Wonders

 

 

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