MORVERN CALLAR

Directed by Lynne Ramsay

Written by Ramsay and Liana Dognini, based on Alan Walker's novel

With Samantha Morton and Kathleen McDermott

Distributed by Cowboy Films

***1/2

The final scene of MORVERN CALLAR  sums up the title character's  attitude towards life.. Dancing at a rave and lit by red flickers, she's surrounded by partiers. However, the soundtrack isn't filled by Sasha & Digweed trance remixes.  Instead, we see and hear her  listening to the Mamas & Papas on her late boyfriend's mix tape. Morvern (Morton) lives by blocking the world out with her own tune. It often turns her into an anti-heroine. She's callous. selfish and willful, sometimes to an extremely disturbing extent. She's also open to possibilities to which more settled people are blind.

Laurent Cantet's TIME OUT reinvents the 70s European road movie for an age of post-political burnout, where the idea of satisfying work is a chimera or an impossible fantasy. MORVERN CALLAR breaths new life into the genre, partially  because it stakes a female claim on the Beat idea of finding oneself on the road. The films of Wim Wenders and Theo Angelopolous, the novels of Peter Handke and the music of Kraftwerk have already given this concept European form. However, Ramsay creates a character whose wanderlust is something new. Her hunger for experience isn't an escape from  history or echoes of dictatorship. It's a personal rite, as is almost everything else that she does.

MORVERN CALLAR begins with her discovery that her boyfriend has committed suicide overnight. He's left a computerized note for her, in addition to the manuscript for his latest novel, a mix tape and his ATM card. Rather than using his money to pay for a funeral, she   submits the manuscript under her own name and ditches her job at a supermarket to visit Spain with her friend Lana (McDermott.)  Lana has a good time partying at a resort, but Morvern insists on dragging her deeper into the countryside.

In her debut, RATCATCHER, Ramsay got stuck between poetic reverie and an inescapable vein of Anglo miserabilism. She's now ditched the miserabilism and distilled her poetic qualities. The first third of MORVERN CALLER, set in a small Scottish town, recalls Claire Denis, the Hou Hsiao-hsien of GOODBYE SOUTH, GOODBYE and the Olivier Assayas of COLD WATER. In fact, a scene at a bonfire refers overtly to COLD WATER. You can almost reach out and touch these images.

Using shallow focus, cinematographer Alwin Kuchler keeps Morton close to the camera while surrounding her with blinking lights off in the distance. (Her apartment is decorated with a Christmas tree.) Scotland looks dark and uninviting, but there seems to be something more behind it,  just out of reach out of the camera and Morvern. Her quest to find it propels the film.  Kuchler and Ramsay create three distinct looks for each third of MORVERN CALLER. The second part, set at a Spanish resort, looks the most realistic. No distant lights here, just sun, sun and more solar rays. The third, which takes place in the Spanish countryside, is grittier, tinted green and yellow and occasionally extremely stylized.

The cast's often-undecipherable Scottish accents - although the English Morton doesn't adopt one -  make MORVERN CALLER seem less loquacious than it is: dialogue sometimes sounds like a sound effect. Nevertheless, the film hinges around Morton's performance. Ramsay and Dognini don't idealize her as a benevolent, neo-hippie free spirit. She pulls Lana out of bed to drag her off to the Spanish countryside without paying much attention to the location of her friend's luggage or the man she's in bed with.  And of course, she doesn't exactly treat her boyfriend's body with the greatest respect, although one never knows if she's acting out of numb apathy, depression or shock. (Critic J. Hoberman has compared her to Albert Camus' anti-hero Mersault, who greets his mother's death as  no big deal.) Much of the time, one doesn't know what Morvern is feeling - Ramsay eschews backstory or overt psychology - yet Morton's performance makes it clear that she's feeling something behind a numb facade. She can't talk about her emotions, which remain a  mystery, but their cost is visible in her face. . Similarly, there's something logical  behind her willingness to travel anywhere at the drop of a hat. Her desire to keep moving at any cost is all that keeps her afloat.

If Ramsay ever learns how to completely integrate poetry and storytelling, she'll make a great film. As it stands, MORVERN CALLAR never really lives up to the sensual promise of its first third, becoming more prosaic as it progresses. However, promise is exactly what the film's about. As it ends, Morvern stands at yet another destination on a road trip. It's anyone's guess where she'll wind up.  I'm more confident about how Ramsay will progress.