I couldn’t find a still of the image I wanted to run with this review, so I’ll describe it. Helen Dickson, 73, sits quietly in her kitchen under a duvet as David Gray, 33, stands outside her window holding a rifle. She’s cradling an injured dog, and she grips her hand around its mouth to stifle its whimpers. David can be seen through a chink in the curtains, and for a second or two, he thinks he hears something and peers around into the house. His gaze is pointed directly down the camera at the audience. That moment is a metaphor (and I’m speaking for New Zealand residents here): we’re in that kitchen with Helen, hoping that this evil outside won’t notice us and come in to destroy us. It’s done all sorts of evil deeds elsewhere, but surely it’s not going to get us – is it?
I might be stretching things, but it’s a great moment – one of several in a quality film. Our national psyche might be a bit more wary now, but in 1990, we knew we were cut off from much of the world and the bad things that can happen. Then Gray lost his mind, and we wondered about that strange guy down the street in our town or suburb. I’m not old enough to remember exactly the strength of the impact this massacre had on our society, but Out of the Blue, despite a few loose treatments of the truth, suggests that it opened many of our eyes to nastiness.
The film is at its best when it follows Nick Harvey (Karl Urban) and his fellow frightened cops as they vainly attempt to neutralise the threat posed by Gray. The nervous behaviour of men on both sides rings completely true. Gray doesn’t really have a plan, he just wants to stay alive as long as possible; the policemen fear for their lives, and lack the grit (and training) to do him in. It’s appropriately shocking at times, too: the first killing is hand-over-the-mouth brutal, and a half-second shot where Gray appears in the distance behind someone is genuinely scary.
However, points are lost during the early scenes with Gray. He is filmed mostly in pointed close-up to emphasise how alone he is, which is okay up to a point, but starts to become forced; then we see how out of step he is with the rest of the world, as schoolkids on the bus laugh at him, and starts yelling in a bank (a scene so out-of-synch with reality I couldn’t help but smile). Matt Sunderland is impressive all the way through, though – it must have been an extremely difficult role to play, and I think he got it absolutely right.
Urban is good, too. He’s doing all right for himself over in the States, and that’s because he can play any part with strength and sensitivity. He has to carry large portions of this film almost single-handedly, and he manages that easily. The real diamond here, though, is Lois Lawn as Dickson. A non-professional, there isn’t a single second of her performance that doesn’t feel like documentary. The way she speaks on the phone, the fearful but pragmatic look in her eyes, her final glance at the bedsheets fluttering in the wind – it’s all perfect, and she ought to win awards.
Sarkies has taken a few cues from Paul Greengrass (United 93), but with a few cinematic additions, such as a complex sound design (sometimes overly so) and occasional shots of calm amidst the insanity. If there are missteps, they are over-balanced by even more impressive points in the film’s favour. And as the obligatory roll of names and ‘what happened next’ info came up before the final credits, I suddenly became choked up. They’re all real people, you know? Dickson really did crawl home twice; Chiquita Holden really did get shot and see her father die. Out of the Blue doesn’t function as entertainment; it’s a warning, a reminder of what could be just around the corner, and of what happens if we neglect the marginals of society.
(What most disappoints me is that the title of this film makes me think of that horrific Delta Goodrem song about Mark Philippoussis, which has been running through my head since I left the cinema. But I’m sure I’ll be all right.)