Many movies all but beg you to love their main characters. Writer-director Lynne Ramsay's "Morvern Callar" almost dares you to even like the spiky gal at its center: a sullen young working-class Scottish woman in a nondescript coastal city (Oban), an unsavory part played with startling immediacy by Samantha Morton. Based on the novel by Alan Warner, this movie - Ramsay's sophomore feature after her critically admired "Ratcatcher" - gives you an anti-heroine whose actions are so off-putting and whose inner life so unreadable, she's almost scary.
Morvern, a supermarket stacker with few future prospects, wakes up Christmas morning to find her dead boyfriend (and a suicide note) beside her. She proceeds to leave him there for a few days, and finally cuts him up and hides the corpse. Then Morvern, innocent of murder but not of callousness or theft, takes the computer manuscript of her boyfriend's unpublished novel and sells it as her own, deceiving her would-be publishers. She also spends the funeral money left by her dead lover for a wild spree with her what-the-hell girlfriend and fellow supermarket employee Lanna (Kathleen McDermott).
"Morvern Callar" sets this seemingly amoral character in cheerless lower-class environs, and then follows her to a sunny tourist spot (Almeria) in Spain, where we watch her in a blind run of hedonism, conning her way out of one world and into the other. Booze, flight, lying and sex seem the only escapes she takes out of Oban - and from her viewpoint, maybe they are. As Warner imagined Morvern, and as Ramsay draws her in the film, she is an almost pure punk existentialist, escaping from her dead-end existence through any means necessary.
But what gives the movie real flesh and fantasy is the actress playing this part, the incandescent Morton.
Americans mostly know Morton from her roles as Sean Penn's exploited mute girlfriend in Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown" and as the clairvoyant freak-on-the-run in Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report." But "Morvern" is more reminiscent of Morton's brilliant debut in Clare Adler's "Under the Skin," where she played Iris, a nymphomaniac drowning herself in promiscuous sex after her mother's death. Morton played Iris with almost fierce abandon, and that's also part of what she gives Morvern, inhabiting her character so fully that we barely notice she speaks with a British accent instead of a Scottish one.
There are few other important characters in "Morvern Callar," except Lanna, well played by Scottish newcomer McDermott, a previous nonprofessional and former shopgirl. But Morton is actress enough to carry any movie. And Ramsay, as in "Ratcatcher," remains a filmmaker with an acid viewpoint and a real gift for teasing chilly poetry out of lives and settings that might otherwise seem drab and sordid.
Our gaze is constantly on Morvern, whom we know is a liar and cheat, and whose behavior, at first, seems beyond the pale. Nevertheless, Morton and Ramsay make her come alive. The film unfolds without false piety or sentimental rib nudging, but with a steady viewpoint in a cool, clear light. As a movie, "Morvern Callar" is harder to like than "Ratcatcher," but it confirms Ramsay as a gutsy talent with raw instincts and an uncompromising vision of the world. Like Morvern herself, the movie named after her keeps on moving, doesn't court cheap sympathy and holds nothing back.
3 stars (out of 4)
Directed by Lynne Ramsay; written by Ramsay, Liana Dognini, based on the novel by Alan Warner; photographed by Alwin Kuchler; edited by Lucia Zucchetti; production designed by Jane Morton; music supervisor Andrew Cannon; produced by Robyn Slovo, Charles Pattinson, George Faber. English, in Scottish accent. A Cowboy Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:37. No MPAA rating. Adult. (sensuality, language, drug use).
Morvern Callar - Samantha Morton
Lanna - Kathleen McDermott
Dazzer - Dan Cadan
Sheila Tequila - Carolyn Calder
Tom Boddington - Jim Wilson Courts Jean - Ruby Milton
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.