Just in time for the holidays, two more movies about suicide joined The Hours in theaters. Representing Scotland is Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar (Company Pictures), in which Samantha Morton discovers her boyfriend (wrist-slash) underneath the Christmas tree. Representing America is Todd Louiso's Love Liza (Sony Pictures Classics), in which Philip Seymour Hoffman finds a letter from his young wife (carbon monoxide poisoning) and refuses to open it. Movies about suicide typically invert themselves, becoming stories of life's preciousness, but these two stay in first gear, fixating on how the death warps the closest survivor. There are no happy flashbacks, no ghosts hovering over the bed. See both of these pictures on the same day, and you might be sniffing gasoline before nightfall.
That's the drug of choice for Wilson, the computer programmer and Web site consultant played by Hoffman. Gasoline provides a disorientating, instantaneous high—what doctors call a "butterfly feeling"—and also makes for a nice ironic tribute to his wife. Wilson becomes an addict and feigns an interest in radio-controlled airplanes to cover up his habit. As he sniffs away, the movie circles around its McGuffin: Will he open the letter, and, if he does, will his wife tell him it wasn't his fault?
Morton, on the other hand, reads her boyfriend's suicide note right away. He wrote it on the computer, leaving a screen saver with the words "Read Me." Morton's character, named Morvern, is a supermarket clerk in a small Scottish village, a slacker content to be the town's dark princess, the one the men in the pub all follow with their eyes. It's hard to tell how she feels about her boyfriend's suicide. When a friend asks where he's been lately, she says that he's gone off with another woman. She also leaves his body on the floor for a few days and then decides to cut it into pieces while wearing a Walkman taped to her half-naked body. It's an awful scene—the blood spurts onto her bare arms. The deed done, she hikes into the Highlands, buries the remains, tells no one, and decides to take a holiday in Spain.
This is bizarre, even by Scottish standards, but the true weirdness sets in when Morvern's butchery begins to make sense. We are accustomed to seeing people do disturbing things in movies, but rare is the movie that convincingly presents the interior life of a cracked mind. So far, this appears to be Lynne Ramsay's specialty. (Her first feature, Ratcatcher , was a skillful downer about a 9-year-old boy who watches his friend drown.) Her movies don't feel tied to a script. Ramsay creates motifs, linking one scene or image to the next through color and mood, like a DJ presiding over a rave. To feel this intuitive talent, compare the perfectly acceptable way that Liza opens—Philip Seymour Hoffman sleeping on the floor in an unlit house—with the gut punch that Morvern delivers: Samantha Morton's hand caressing her boyfriend's back, who's still alive, until we see his wrist.
Ramsay has a good accomplice in Morton, an actress with a preternatural starkness—so much so that directors have been content to cast her as a mute (Woody Allen) and a near-mute (Steven Spielberg). She talks fairly often in this movie, although since she speaks with a Scottish accent, it's not as if we really understand her. There's an extended sequence where her character wears headphones while walking into a supermarket, and Morton seems as though she's lost in her own language. We are willing to forgive her the normal responses to situations that people are supposed to have, simply because she looks so vacant and disturbed. Some actors can transform themselves before an audience's eyes, but Morton has the opposite gift: She's completely transparent.
The few plot points of Morvern flow according to a wonderful, perverse logic. When Morvern reads in her boyfriend's suicide note that he wrote his novel for her, she puts her name on the cover page and ships it off to a London publisher. She also takes his bank card and uses the money he set aside for his funeral to go on vacation. In this, the corpse-cutting scene comes full circle: She's feeding off of his body bit by bit, even though we know she's buried it. Eventually, Morvern and her best friend (an excellent Kathleen McDermott) go to Spain, where the movie loses its way, becoming disembodied and aimless as Ramsay shows off her amazing eye. The characters don't really belong in the sunlight. This is a night movie, as implacable as a bad memory.
Philip Seymour Hoffman places his talents within a much more conventional film. The script for Love Liza was written by his brother Gordy, and it shrewdly combines two subjects dear to the heart of independent cinema: suicide and addiction. It also has an ending that feels a tad too clever and engineered. (The script was honored at Sundance; it's the kind of story that wins awards.) Hoffman outclasses the other actors—including Kathy Bates, who's given little chance to spar with him. There's a funny scene where he runs away from a woman at the zoo, one of the few situations that allow him to play up his overgrown boyishness. The movie is one long low note, with little comic relief and no evidence of why or how Wilson loved Liza. Hoffman continually sulks in the dark, a combustible mixture of innocence and despair.
It's a good sign that Hoffman has decided to take a movie onto his shoulders, forgoing his preference for stealing them from the side. But for a great leading role in an independent film (think Mark Ruffalo in You Can Count on Me), you need a character who transcends movieness. This part requires that Hoffman perform the angry outburst, the druggy evasions, the glassy-eyed silence, the escape to the American road. He completes all of these tasks expertly yet never breaks free into something original. Even the world that he falls into, the community of radio-controlled vehicle enthusiasts, feels deliberate in its quirkiness. The gasoline-sniffing, too, borders on an affectation: an addiction with more hipster cache than alcohol, which is a road to self-destruction that any old square could take.
What, in the end, is the point of a feel-bad movie? The well-made ones run counter to the most powerful lure of cinema—escapist entertainment—and leave the audience in uncomfortable, but maybe not unwelcome places. But a lot of them like to make us feel good. Just as an incest plot often leads to some understanding of the father, the suicide movie tends inexorably to some sort of separate peace with the dead, a karmic release. Morvern sidesteps the whole issue by becoming a psychedelic trip—an existential journey into limbo—while Liza dutifully marches toward its destination. The movie reveals the contents of the suicide note, the secret that it has been withholding. The more daring and appropriate choice would have been to leave the mystery intact and unknowable.