Watching a Lynne Ramsay movie means marinating in bleakness. Cheer is in short supply. Abiding empathy for besieged souls aside, Ramsay mires her stories in gloom (at best) and doom (at worst), chronicling the travails of the common man, the shell-shocked, and, for want of more a precise term, the damned. Think of her movies as monuments of nihilism. Their substance is anguish. But Ramsay tends to throw that anguish into sharp relief. You Were Never Really Here, We Need to Talk About Kevin and Ratcatcher aren’t easily digested, but they’re easily understood. Her cinema speaks with perfect clarity.
Morvern Callar is the glaring exception to the coherence of Ramsay’s filmmaking: It’s a ghoulish enigma, a slice of weird in a career peppered by the surreal. Ratcatcher features a shot of a mouse colony on the moon. You Were Never Really Here laces a violent reality with violent delusions. We Need to Talk About Kevin, arguably the most grounded of the bunch, reads like a waking nightmare through its flashback structure. But none of these films ask Samantha Morton to hack up her dead boyfriend’s body and bury his parts in a serene mountaintop clearing. Contrasted with Morvern Callar, their idiosyncrasies are downright quaint.
Surprisingly, it’s the details Morvern Callar has in common with the rest of Ramsay’s filmography that make it stand out. Its title character, a 21-year-old working at a supermarket in a sleepy Scottish port town, has her own struggles, financial difficulties and personal woes to deal with, starting in the movie’s opening sequence. Waking on Christmas day to find that your boyfriend has committed suicide by the blinking lights of the tree you dressed together is a horror movie unto itself; the shock of her discovery is enough to make the viewer go as numb as Morvern. But that’s the root of Morvern Callar’s ambiguity. Most of us might expect Morvern to break down, to call the police, or even call a friend. Instead she does, well, nothing.
Morvern strokes his back as if checking for signs of life, runs her hand down his arm, lays her hand in his, her breathing wet and raspy all the while. It’s not as if she, on seeing her boyfriend’s corpse, erupts in cheers, or stares blankly into space (though she does lift cash from his pocket). But the body’s still on the floor when she decides to dress up and go out partying with her friend, Lanna (Kathleen McDermott), which presumably is not what the average person would do if faced with final proof of their significant other’s mortality. Morvern, at this point, is clearly not your average person. She lies to Lanna about her new relationship status for reasons Ramsay never discloses to us. Maybe she’s in denial. Maybe she’s just dumbfounded and heartbroken. Maybe she really just doesn’t give a shit. Morvern is a mystery.
It’s possible Lanna is an accoutrement of a sort for Morvern, an accessory she wears out to clubs and on holiday; Lanna lives her life from moment to moment, constantly on the prowl for her next experience, be it with drugs, a man, both or anything else that she can use to distract herself from real life. Together, they’re anarchy on four legs. Morvern likes a good time, too, but she’s not as single-minded as Lanna, in part because she has a rotting ex-boyfriend taking up space in her flat. Of course, we never get to see Morvern in a normal state of being—she’s well beyond normalcy from the moment the film opens, as evidenced by a sequence where Morvern dismembers the deceased wearing only her underwear and her aviators as The Velvet Underground supplies her soundtrack.
The burial of her boyfriend occurs after Morvern deletes his name from his manuscript, letter by letter, replaces it with her own, and ships it off to a publisher. If you’re looking for the source of Morvern Callar’s wanton strangeness, it’s this sequence of events. We can give her a pass for having a night on the town. If that’s how she deals with death, then that’s how she deals with death. You might behave erratically, too, if your loved one committed suicide on Christmas. It’s how she deals post-death that matters.
There’s so much left untold regarding Morvern’s life that it’s difficult to levy any kind of informed judgment. We don’t know, after all, what kind of man he was—good or bad, kind or abusive. She might be better off without him. Then again, she might be using his death as a way out of her dreary life, literally: The money Morvern’s boyfriend left her to pay for a funeral goes instead to a spontaneous holiday to Spain. Is she a victim newly freed from a bad situation? Is she a vulture feasting on the scraps her boyfriend left behind? The lingering question of her morality is never fully answered, which is for the best. If we knew everything, the movie wouldn’t have much of a point.
In Spain, business goes more or less as usual for Morvern and Lanna: They drink, they carouse, they have sex with strangers. Eventually they take a day trip to the countryside, where they run smack dab into a parade in a tiny sun-baked village, the revelers hoisting puppets and skeletons as they go about their celebration.
Most folks might feel put out or chagrined if they stumbled into a festival like guileless oafs. Morvern, being Morvern, is unfazed by the sights and sounds of the parade, and almost ditches Lanna in the confusion before dragging her out to the desert and immediately getting them both lost on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere.
This isn’t especially odd or even all that surprising. Morvern Callar is upfront about its protagonists’ capacities for taking care of themselves and each other. They’re poorly equipped for adulthood: Lanna has a knack for easygoing hedonism, and Morvern doesn’t even have that. (Granted, she doesn’t need to. She has Lanna.) But plenty about their circumstances feels off all the same. Soon, we forget how they got here in the first place, for one thing, and for another, it’s a little unnerving that Morvern, going more than a day without food, water or meaningful sleep, appears totally unfazed by her lack of sustenance. Lanna, tired, hungry, and in dire need of a rager, loses her grip and finally calls Morvern on her nonsense: “What’s wrong with you? What do you want? What planet are you on?”
In keeping with Morvern Callar’s preference for uncertainty, Morvern doesn’t give a straight answer: Instead, she ditches Lanna, hitches a ride back to civilization, and goes to meet the publishers, who as it turns out want to buy his her novel for $100,000 pounds. (That might actually be the most outlandish beat in the film, because seriously, what publisher offers that kind of money for a first-time author?)
It’s obvious that Morvern isn’t a writer. It’d be obvious even if we didn’t already know she isn’t a writer. She barely strings together more than a few semi-cogent sentences in reply to the publishers’ queries about the book. But the ruse is good enough, perhaps facilitated by too much booze, and presto, Morvern makes a deal, and then decides to walk through a cemetery with no greater purpose than “because.” At this point, we’ve surrendered to Morvern’s will, and besides, visiting a Spanish graveyard isn’t the creepiest thing she’s done in the film.
...aaaaaand then this tracking shot happens, the camera gliding tranquilly from Morvern, flower in hand, alongside a sunbathed crypt wall, back to Morvern, who in the time it takes for Ramsay to move her lens has apparently teleported. There’s a clear throughline of magical realism in Ramsay’s work to complement her social realism, so it’s not as if her movies don’t occasionally feature an inexplicable stray scene here or there that clashes with the laws of physics or with basic human compassion. But Morvern Callar is loaded with scenes like that, and this visual palindrome is the film’s capper, the least normal image in a movie built to defy normalcy. Granted, maybe she’s just walking behind the camera and switching places, but we don’t hear the sound of footsteps. We don’t hear much of anything at all, in fact. (It’s a cemetery.) So the stillness and serenity of the sequence lulls us into forgetting the kind of movie we’re watching, until suddenly Morvern teleports to the other side of the wall, clutching her rose, her expression inscrutable as ever.
There are kookier movies, more aggressively peculiar movies, out there in the world, movies that go out of their way not to give a damn about rules or logic, but among movies of Morvern Callar’s make and model, you won’t find any that are this offbeat: Morvern herself is a puzzle, completely unfathomable in her motivations, Ramsay’s filmmaking bleeds with otherworldly atmosphere that’d fill Under the Skin with envy, and most of all there’s a cadaver in the living room and no one is bothered enough to give him a decent sendoff. As Ramsay’s followup to Ratcatcher, and as a socially conscious movie about Scotland’s working class, Morvern Callar feels alien.
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.