Morning—a story of grief and healing—marks the feature writing and directorial debut of Leland Orser, one of the most recognizable character actors working in film and television today (Taken, Se7en, NBC’s Revolution). Orser’s project originally debuted at SXSW in 2007 as a short film, focusing on a man’s grief after a tragedy. The expanded version tells the same story from the perspectives of Mark and Alice Munroe (Orser and his real-life wife, Jeanne Tripplehorn), who mourn the death of their young son in different ways.
The film opens in a quietly jarring manner with the camera following an elderly woman (Gina Morelli) making her way on a series of buses from her apartment in Los Angeles to one of the city’s more affluent suburbs. Inside a neatly appointed home, flowers and covered food sit on tables and countertops. The voyeuristic camera then travels upstairs to catch a couple having sex. But all is not what it seems: As soon as they finish, we can see that their faces are contorted in pain and heartbreak.
The alarm clock rings precisely at 6:30 am—a recurring motif throughout Morning—and Alice lets it ring. Does the time signify their son’s death? Or does it mark a routine that they’re trying to keep though their world’s been turned upside-down? Orser is vague about the details of the death—though we do learn it was a swimming pool accident—challenging the viewers to come to their own conclusions.
In a harrowing postcoital scene, Alice asks Mark to help her look for her wedding ring, but he chooses to get dressed for work, knowing that he’s in no shape to go. She begs him to stay, not wanting to be left alone in the house, but he leaves anyway—even after she deliberately hurts herself. He drives halfway down the block before the anxiety gets the best of him and turns back home. Meanwhile, Alice packs a bag and leaves him.
The film follows the two over five days of discomforting heartbreak. Mark locks the world out—including the housekeeper who still travels each morning from her apartment to collect their newspapers, sweep outside and light candles in a makeshift memorial for the dead child. Inside the empty house, Mark proceeds to drink, pop pills, and wander through the rooms in a stupor while destroying things and regressing to a child-like state (building Legos, eating and playing with Fruit Loops, and watching cartoons).
Alice unsuccessfully tries to maneuver in the outside world, encountering painfully awkward situations with both friends who mean well and strangers who know nothing of her situation. There are moments in the film that break the heart while ripping out the gut: At a mall, Alice buys a pair of small cowboy boots, while an acquaintance with her own son in tow—tells Alice she’s jealous of her “alone time” and to “enjoy the time by yourself.” Tripplehorn turns in a powerful performance as woman who’s desperately trying to keep it together, but is reminded of her loss at every turn.
Orser has little dialogue in the latter part of the film, but his performance is equally as visceral. There’s a scene where Mark finds Alice’s wedding ring at the bottom of the freshly drained pool. He sits and weeps as a steady rain begins; the elderly housekeeper climbs into the pool, and without saying a word, holds an umbrella over him while holding his hand. If there were ever a textbook example of “less is more,” this moment is it.
Orser assembled a stellar supporting cast to interact with Tripplehorn’s character—including Laura Linney as a caring grief counselor; Jason Ritter as a kind hotel employee; Kyle Chandler as a sleazy hotel guest; and Elliott Gould as a physician—to work on a limited budget and shooting schedule. (It was filmed in 21 days.)
There are a few plot points that are somewhat forced, a bit too convenient, such as the way Alice “accidentally” runs into Dr. Goodman (Linney) twice on days that she’s not supposed to be in the office. But what the story chalks up as fate, the viewer can forgive after watching Linney and Tripplehorn interact in their scenes. Linney’s quiet countenance speaks volumes as an empathetic listener who lets Alice know that it’s okay to begin the grieving process in her own time.
Though mourning is a part of the human cycle, Morning is not an easy film to watch—save for the great acting by the entire cast. There are times that Orser’s camera lingers, making the audience endure the heartbreak of these parents for a little too long. Though the film ends on a tenuously hopeful note, the sadness sticks around well after the credits roll.
Director: Leland Orser
Writer: Leland Orser
Starring: Jeanne Tripplehorn, Laura Linney, Leland Orser, Elliott Gould, Jason Ritter, Kyle Chandler, Charlie McDermott, Julie White, Gina Morelli
Release Date: Sept. 27, 2013