Irvine Welsh's novel Trainspotting sparked a cult following, a film by Danny Boyle, and a subsequent cult of macho movie fans. Alan Warner's novel Morvern Callar rode that wave, as a grotty Scottish novel suffused with pop-music references and the rootless, aimless apathy of nihilism. Movern Callar is now a film, adapted with admiring fidelity by Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay and starring Samantha Morton as the titular heroine.
Purposefully slack, the defiantly minimalist tale and its brushes with rave-culture psychedelia evoke the rambling disaffection often identified with Antonioni (appropriately, as--in the novel--Morvern's favorite video is The Passenger). The film begins with Morvern, on her living room floor. A few feet away, her boyfriend's bloody body lies under the pathetically blinking lights of their Christmas tree. Immediately, the narrative confounds with Morvern's dull response, which does not give way to any overt emotion or practicality. Instead, the body lays there as Morvern pads around trying to reconnect to her surroundings. When she discovers the contents of her boyfriend's computer--a suicide note with instructions to send off his now-finished novel--Morvern complies, but only after putting her name on the manuscript.
This disconnected opening never promises answers to our questions, though an audience might quite reasonably assume it will get them. What was the nature of the couple's relationship, especially in its final hours? Expect no answer. Is Morvern's response to her boyfriend's death apathetic, psychopathic, vengeful, or desperately liberating? Probably all of the above, but the film remains largely opaque on such questions, using the simplicity of the story and Morton's subtly modulated blankness to turn the film into a Rorschach test for the audience.
So Morvern escapes, with best friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott), from supermarket-checkout drudgery to squalid bacchanalia to the disorienting abandon of holidays in Spain and France. The progression is surprisingly sluggish, with few comforting cinematic jolts. Morvern's most definitive characteristic becomes her deadpan takes to the inanities of the world around her, which she presumably never noticed before; this malaise is only momentarily broken by gleeful giddiness or a burst of uncoiled anger.
Morton's performance works exactly as well as the picture, which speaks highly of her instincts; at first, you intuit the turmoil of thought and emotion cancelling each other out. This is the torpor of a woman who wants neither to think or feel; either would be unbearable, given the circumstances. Her awakening to a do-what-you-want philosophy is equal parts sad, admirable, deplorable, and terrifying. McDermott (in her acting debut), captures the raw tenacity of a struggling average Jane who can't yet see the meaningless forest for the unpleasant trees.
A hazy loll through the supermarket aisles, played to Lee Hazelwood's "Some Velvet Morning," epitomizes the film's wacked-out drollery. As in the novel, the soundtrack to headphone-wearing Morvern's life becomes the mix tape her late boyfriend made for her, allowing ironic use of Velvet Underground, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Aphex Twin, and the Mamas and the Papas, among others. Ramsay--a photographer who yielded to film school--also flirts briefly with the poetic fancy of her debut feature Ratcatcher in a moment of mausoleum magic late in the film. Ramsay's picturesque style is now bolder with color and even darker in its beauty. She also makes effective use of an insect motif to suggest how big Morvern's world becomes--and how delicate it remains--once she chooses a new identity and the survival of the fittest.
At first blush (or, rather, shiver), Morvern Callar feels like a perverse joke stretched to feature-length, with its sparse dialogue and unwillingness to endear the heroine to the audience. The film's damp tone suggests realism, though the heroine's motivations deflect neat comprehension. But the film's infuriating unwillingness to play by the conventions leaves a lasting impression. If the film's provocations feel a bit cheap, their power to unsettle is undeniable. Morvern Callar may lack the riveting gestures and unalloyed sympathy of Ratcatcher, but it digs under the skin and questions the status quo all the same.