Highly focused direction and a hypnotic performance by Samantha Morton pull off the tricky balancing act of “Morvern Callar,” a basically plotless, psychological mood piece centered on a young woman whose horizons suddenly open up before her. Though recognizably by the director of “Ratcatcher,” which played Cannes’ Un Certain Regard in 1999, this second feature by Scottish director Lynne Ramsay reps a leap in accessibility and emotional involvement over the sometimes head-over-heart style of her first film. Though the pic’s commercial horizons still remain extremely limited, Morton looks likely to reap as much kudos here as for her earlier tour-de-force in “Under the Skin,” with which Ramsay’s pic has several similarities.
With her interest more in mindscapes than in regular plotting, Ramsay would seem the ideal director to bring Alan Warner’s 1995 novel to the screen. (She was, in fact, commissioned by Company Pictures in 1998, prior to “Ratcatcher” going into production.) And though, like her first film, “Morvern” still plays like a feature-length short, this works in the pic’s favor, maintaining an emotional intensity and suspension of belief that a more conventional director would have had difficulty sustaining.
Like Warner’s novel, to which it adheres reasonably closely, the entire movie is offered from the perspective of Morvern Callar (Morton), a young woman who wakes up on Christmas Day to find her half-naked, live-in boyfriend dead on the floor next to her, his wrist cut. Slowly swimming into focus like Morvern herself, pic only gradually doles out background info: that she lives in a small, unnamed town (actually Oban) on the west coast of Scotland, that she works in a supermarket stacking shelves, that she has a best friend, Lanna (newcomer Kathleen McDermott).
Initially, however, there’s just Morvern’s blank, shocked face, a computer screen with the words “I love you. Be brave,” and the probing camera of d.p. Alwin Kuchler with its vivid but downbeat colors. Dialogue is at a premium throughout the movie, but Ramsay and co-scripter Liana Dognini use it with care. An early scene, where Morvern goes outside to use a pay phone and ends up talking to the person at the other end of a wrong number, rapidly establishes her character in a few deft strokes — open, helpful, somewhat ingenuous, and also a little spacey. (It also establishes Morvern as having, strangely, an English rather than Scottish accent.)
Pic’s first half-hour has a free-flowing, semi-dreamlike feel which parallels Morvern’s mild catatonia and distance from the real world. A party with Lanna is interrupted by a chillingly surreal moment of Morvern standing by a river, pulling up her skirt for a passing boatman; and later, when the two girls share a bathtub at the home of Lanna’s elderly granny (Ruby Milton), there’s an equally creepy moment when Morvern tries, but is unable, to explain to her friend about her b.f.’s suicide. Moving around in her Walkman-dominated world, obsessively listening to a compilation tape left by her boyfriend, Morvern is established as a true compulsive, a close relative of the Catherine Deneuve character in “Repulsion.” There are times, too, when Ramsay’s pic comes very close to being a blackly comic, psycho-horror movie: not least in the first half, as Morvern calmly cooks a pizza while the b.f.’s body still lies on the apartment floor, and later methodically cuts up his cadaver in the bathroom and buries it in the Highlands. You get the feeling that, if her lover hadn’t slit his own wrist, she would have done it for him.
A smidgen of plot comes into view at the 30-minute point, as Morvern re-reads her b.f.’s final message on the computer and finds he’s left her a novel to get published. Without even reading it, she prints it out and sends it off, having substituted her own name on the title page. And while waiting for a response, she books a holiday for herself and Lanna in Spain, using her b.f.’s cash card.
The change of location, 50 minutes in, to sun-bleached southern Spain (actually Almeria) is a welcome tonic after the hard, wintry hues of Scotland. Though almost nothing happens in conventional terms, both characters loosen up, falling in with a young, sex-and-beer Brit crowd and finally splitting for the desert, where Morvern and Lanna’s friendship is put to the test.
Warner’s novel, written in the form of a rambling, ungrammatical, first-person reverie, is full of peripheral detail but skimps on major detail like exact locations. Ramsay’s film, by definition, is harder on the latter, but almost totally free of backgrounding.
It’s entirely due to Morton’s performance — moving from shell-shocked to willfully self-centered, as Morvern drags Lanna along on some kind of journey of the soul — that the movie manages to stay afloat for more than an hour and a half. And it’s also to Morton’s credit that she makes the basically weird, self-centered character bearable, even likable, without resorting to actorly tics. McDermott, a trainee hairdresser until she was plucked off a Glasgow street by casting director Des Hamilton, is very good as the spirited Lanna, though some of her heavily accented dialogue will test non-Scottish ears. Other roles are simply bits, naturally cast and played, with only Jim Wilson and Dolly Wells standing out as rather “filmy” portrayals of a trendy London publisher and his assistant.
Kuchler, who also shot “Ratcatcher,” uses a much more vivid color palette here, even in the Scottish scenes, and punctuates his handheld, close-up work with arresting, fixed compositions of landscapes and people. A brief section of wacko color processing in the Spanish section is excusably jolting, despite being almost as gratuitous as Terry Gilliam’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”