What is Morris County? It's a small congregation of sleepy suburban municipalities in Northern New Jersey spanning a total of 468 miles. Just a few short miles from the New York borderline, Morris County is the wealthiest in its state and ranked sixth in the nation. It's an economic oasis in a sea of filth and permanent financial recession. For a state notorious for political corruption, gambling, strip malls, diners, adult book stores, and seedy truck stops, Morris County stands apart as an idealistic reflection of Norman Rockwell's America. Let's face it, there's good reason why NJ has been stamped the arm pit of America and long rumored to be the earthly location for the 9 Gates of Hell.
But Morris County is more than a geographic marker; it's also a feeling, foreboding omen, and state of mind. It is also the debut feature film by Matthew Garret. An anthology of short films that explore the darker side of white upper class angst and suburban milieu, Garret's film may at first seem like a textbook example of every mistake a student fresh of film school could make on their first feature endeavor. Morris County features a series of three unrelated stories loosely strung together and directed with an almost esoteric sense of minimalism featuring loathsome characters in aggravatingly bleak circumstances with an almost fetishistic obsession for the macabre and grotesque. The film attacks religious hypocrisy and the American dream with an overall tone of nihilism bordering on the misanthropic.
Yet, the experience has continued to linger long after viewing. As trite or cliché as it may be to write, this was a deeply unsettling film and well worth seeking out.
WARNING, POTENTIAL SPOILERS. The first short titled, Ellie, follows the exploits of a virginal teenage girl who suddenly decides to skip school one morning and indulge in numerous vices. She starts with her first cigarette and things quickly escalate from there. She finds herself fucking a sleazy cashier for whiskey, experimenting with marijuana and having sex with strangers in the woods. There's no exposition, and even the dialogue between characters during an important confrontation comes across obtuse and doesn't fully illustrate the big reveal. We're never given information or any concrete clues for her seemingly erratic behavior. Garrett challenges his audience and demands their attention to solve the mystery. It all ends with a graphic miscarriage and a seemingly random homicide.
The second film, The Family Rubin, focuses on a Jewish family where the mother is having an affair, the father experiments with casual homosexual sex, and the seemingly sweet pre teen son locks himself in his room to torture his pet mice. As you might imagine, things do not end happily ever after for these characters either. But there are some stand out scenes here that suggest a subtly and masterful sense of restraint that a written synopsis or description betrays.
The third and strongest short, Elmer & Iris, features an elderly woman forced into retirement. Her husband dies soon thereafter. Unable to let go and move on, she leaves his corpse to rot on their couch and carries on while the audience is treated to the early stages of decomposition in explicit and surprisingly realistic detail. Ironically, this is the prettiest and most polished of the three shorts.
This is a film less concerned with story and rational character arcs and more about mood. It's a punishing experience that comfortably sits with in a seemingly new trend in independent cinema. I would liken Morris County to the works of ScreenAnarchy fan favorites, Simon Rumley (Red, White, and Blue), Adamn Wingard (Pop Skull), and even Douglas Buck (Cutting Moments). While Garret isn't quite at the same level of the aforementioned directors, he too has crafted an unsettling and atmospheric drama with heavy genre/horror elements that have been completely subverted into something entirely different and unique. I imagine a term will soon be coined for this new breed of film although I doubt it will ever catch on entirely. This is a hard sell, far too dark and macabre for mainstream audiences yet it lacks the visceral thrills to satiate the palates of gore hounds and those in a constant quest to find the newest and most fucked up thing. Although this is tonally similar to Cutting moments, Morris County is nowhere near in the same league in terms of horrific imagery.
For the adventurous and open minded film goer, Morris County has plenty to reward. There's an honesty and sincerity that's easy to dismiss based on the synopsis but hard to ignore after viewing. Garrett brings out terrific performances from a cast of unknowns and presents the material in a hushed, matter of fact way lending a stranger than fiction quality to the proceedings. Though the film has its faults, most can be linked to budget restraints and inexperience. Still, Morris County marks the introduction of an artist and new presence in the American indie scene. It also serves as further proof that New Jersey is a place best avoided.
MORRIS COUNTY will be screening at the Philadelphia Film and Music Festival Friday, September 24 at Yards Brewing Company in Philadelphia P.A. at 11:30pm.
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