“Morning” is about mourning. I’m sure the connection is one its author intended.
This spare drama has the shape of a short story, tightly focused on a couple’s loss of their only child. It takes place during the span of just a few days, sometime after the funeral, and homes in on what the death does to a marriage. What it does to each parent. What the wound looks like.
Leland Orser makes a raw, soul-searching feature debut as writer, director and star in “Morning.” He plays the devastated father opposite his real-life wife, Jeanne Tripplehorn.
Orser is clearly an actor first because he gives anyone on screen — Elliott Gould, Kyle Chandler, Jason Ritter — enough time to find their moment, to leave an imprint, even if it’s only a scene or two.
Julie White and Laura Linney take up slightly more space. The former, a chatty friend; the latter, a nearly silent trauma therapist. Both are excellent and shift the mood perceptibly.
The film begins on a morning when the world is awash in sunlight, though Alice (Tripplehorn) and Mark (Orser) could not be in a darker place.
The alarm clock long silenced, they are still in bed, going through the motions of making love. She is lifeless. He is despairing. They can’t bear each other, much less comfort each other, and the rage that takes shape in each one is something to behold.
Alice is inconsolable and her story dominates, which is an interesting turn of events because “Morning” began as a short film told solely from the father’s point of view. As the couple’s morning begins, so does that of another woman (Gina Morelli).
She’s bent by the years, and it takes a difficult bus ride and long walk to make her way from her apartment to Alice and Mark’s house. She stacks the papers near the door each day, sweeps up the glass from a window Alice has broken, and sets up a shrine on the front steps, lighting candles in front of a photo we never see. We don’t know the woman’s name or her role in their lives.
The film is understated in that way and more universal for it. We never see the lost child’s face either. Scrapes of information about him, and the accident, are dropped here and there. Sometimes the choice works well in making the point that the film is about loss, not the boy’s life; at others it falls short, like the blurred video of the family in better times.
Working from a script shaped more by sound than words, insight comes at us in primal waves. The heart-wrenching sobs, the gut-churning nausea, the keening and, perhaps most profound of all, the silence. It all carries specific meaning.
Orser has made his name as a character actor. The roles have tended to be dark and brooding ones, a man either troubled or causing it, in films such as “Se7en,” “The Good German” and “Taken.” In Tripplehorn’s eclectic career, there have been many memorable performances in marquee films such as “The Firm.” But as Barb Henrickson, the first sister-wife in the Mormon family of HBO’s stellar series “Big Love,” she was unforgettable.
“Morning” gives the couple a chance to work together again — they did early on in Peter Berg’s 1998 crime comedy, “Very Bad Things.” Though Orser could have intertwined their journeys, after the opening scene, his narrative puts them on separate paths.
It is a moving effort but ultimately a fitful film, rocking between refined and ragged. Still, whatever the future holds for Alice and Mark, you get the sense the actor will be spending more of his behind the camera.
MPAA rating: R for a scene of sexuality
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood