April 17, 2003

Morvern's Wild Ride

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When you’re in pain, you don’t see the world quite the same way. Flashes of color, bursts of light and dark, blaring loud music and patches of quiet, whirling around your head in a dizzying spin cycle. Nothing makes sense, and you don’t want it to either. Things just, sort of, happen. Morvern Callar feels this kind of pain. She breathes it from her every pore, lets it sink into her from her bath water. Her boyfriend James has killed himself; he’s lying in her hallway with his wrists bleeding onto the linoleum. But Morvern is just trying to go on with her life, struggling to be free of his ghost even while the cold fleshy reality of his dead body stares her in the face.

This is the bone-chilling premise of Morvern Callar, and from there the film sets off on a miraculous, barely lucid dream adventure concerning the heroine’s quest to be free. Icily, almost eerily, detached, Morvern (Samantha Morton of Minority Report and Jesus’ Son) hides a deep emotional well beneath her seemingly unflinching exterior. She is seeking “the quiet places” in the world, looking for tiny moments where she can flee her pain in the sheer beauty of life’s small wonders. She finds her only solace in insects and worms, and some amount of comfort in her extroverted friend Lanna, whom she drags along on her misbegotten journey.

The film’s pace is a peculiar mix of the languid and the frenetic; most of it feels like a massive rave, with no context, and no chance that you’ll ever meet any of these people again. The two young women flee Britain for Spain, where they dive into even more drug- and alcohol-induced partying and no-strings-attached sex, in a chain of nights that blur together into one ecstatically depressing drinking binge. But the film never slows down long enough for you to start feeling the morning-after hangover, and before you know it, Morvern is wandering despondently off into another exploration.

All this is scored by Aphex Twin, Can, and the Velvet Underground (with Maureen Tucker singing, of course), from a mix tape left behind by Morvern’s boyfriend. Morvern finds a peculiar comfort in these tunes, and the continual presence of her headphones provides yet another detachment from the world around her. In one chilling scene, Morvern chopped up her boyfriend’s body for disposal while listening to the Velvets’ “I’m Sticking With You” — Tucker’s cutesy child-like vocals lend a surreal quality to the moment.

Morton is amazing as the title character, always somewhat distant from everything else going on in the movie. She is this film’s center, sometimes dark and storming, sometimes crazed and hyperactive, sometimes disturbingly down-to-business, but always with an undercurrent of emotionality and sadness that is downright devastating. Kathleen McDermott’s Lanna, by contrast, is the film’s brightness, burning holes in the world with her radiant personality and defiantly rude charm. These two characters, outwardly very different, but (we sense) inwardly just two quirks in the same personality, infuse this film with heart and ferocity. They are two different kinds of strength, bolstering each other as they go along.

Morvern Callar never quite reaches a climax or an apex. I hate to disappoint you, but there is no grand revelation about life or love here, no defining moment or lesson learned. It’s simply a wonderfully abstract story that, with small gestures and subtle performances, evokes all the joy, despair, and, ultimately, hope of life’s wild ride.

Archived article by Ed Howard