Film Reviews

Dead-On Dead End

The title Morvern Callar may sound like an Edward Gorey book or a job designation for telephone solicitors, but it's actually a name -- pronounced (roughly) "Mawvin Calla" (like the lily). Although some sources claim that "morvern callar" is Scots for "quieter silence," the words don't show up in online Scots dictionaries. (Yup, there are some.) In any case, that wouldn't be inappropriate, since the heroine of this new film from writer-director Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher) rarely speaks -- and even then not for long.

Morvern (Samantha Morton) is an apparently average woman in her early twenties who works in a supermarket in a small Scottish town. When we first see her, she is lying next to her boyfriend, gently caressing him, the lights on their Christmas tree blinking sweetly. It takes a few moments before we realize that her touch is wasted on him; he's dead.

While she has been off at work, checking out, he has been really checking out. He has left his presents to her under the tree -- a leather jacket, a cigarette lighter and a mix tape he's made her, which serves as the film's soundtrack -- and then committed a bloody but relatively neat suicide. We never really know why, in part because Morvern herself doesn't seem to spend much time wondering. His farewell note on his computer says, "Sorry, Morvern. Don't try to understand, it just felt like the right thing to do…I love you. Be brave." Inside the preceding ellipsis are instructions to use the money in his bank account for his funeral and, more crucially, to print out his novel and send it off to publishers. "I wrote it for you."

At first, Morvern seems, quite understandably, in a state of shock: Rather than shriek or call the cops, she lights a cigarette, goes out partying, goes to work, generally carrying on as though nothing has happened.

But we soon realize that she's not in shock, really: This is just the way she is. Working at a dead-end job in a dead-end little town, she doesn't have much worthwhile in her life except her now (literally) dead-end relationship -- which, we learn, might not have been so worthwhile either. Morvern is sleepwalking through her life, because there don't seem to be many options.

After a few days of his corpse just lying there, she gets around to disposing of it, while telling her best friend, Lanna (Kathleen McDermott), that he merely left her and went away to a foreign land forever. As for his novel, she does exactly what he asked for in his note, though clearly not what he intended. "Be brave" and "I wrote it for you," taken together, give Morvern the perfect way to strike back at him for what he's done, while carrying out his wishes: That is, she's brave enough to delete his name from the manuscript and replace it with her own. Likewise, she's brave enough to bury him herself and pocket the funeral money.

This nest egg gives her the means to at least temporarily break her life's bleak trajectory. She heads off for a Spanish vacation with Lanna, while trying to figure out what to do next.

At least we can project that she's trying to figure it out. One of the glories of the film is that Ramsay keeps us rigorously to Morvern's point of view without ever being explicit about what's going on in her head.

It's up to Morton to make Morvern real, without ever compromising the character, who herself would never think to spill her guts, even to Lanna. As with the deaf-mute girl she played in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown and her cosseted "precog" in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, Morton uses her face and her body language to bring us Morvern's soul, even though the character is almost completely deadpan. Morvern may be totally inexpressive, but Morton isn't. (That's why they call it "acting.")

In the Scotland scenes, the movie feels like it might turn into social realism at any moment, but in Spain the tone tilts into something a little more fantastical. Part of Morvern's task in Spain is to rid herself of restrictive bonds to her boyfriend. While she keeps his Christmas presents -- most important, the tape -- and even steals his identity vis-à-vis his book, the lighter stops working at a crucial moment. The spark has gone out…she's no longer carrying a torch…he's officially an old flame.

This happens shortly after a pivotal scene that has an unexplained, but monumental, effect on Morvern. On a first viewing, it's natural to take this sequence at face value, but second time through, one can perceive the possibility that it's an apparition or a dream. Who knows? By then, we are so deeply within Morvern's perspective that we can't tell.

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Andy Klein