By all rights, The Dead Girl should not work nearly as well as it does. Consisting of five mini-stories loosely connected by the murder of a prostitute, the setup practically screams with the sort of indie-film pretentiousness that drags down most pictures of its high-minded ilk.
But writer-director Karen Moncrieff (Blue Car) possesses too much clarity of vision to lose her way. She is committed to her characters, and it pays off in a dark, compelling film that interweaves seemingly disparate storylines.
The opening segment, "The Stranger," begins with the discovery of a young woman's mutilated corpse in an open field. The woman who stumbles across the body, Arden (Toni Collette), is a quiet recluse who lives with a cruel, foul-tempered crone of a mother (Piper Laurie, doing a riff on her crazy-mama shtick from Brian De Palma's Carrie). After Arden appears on television news and becomes a bit of a local celebrity, she is asked out on a date by a creepy and heavily tattooed grocery-store clerk (Giovanni Ribisi).
That is followed by "The Sister," in which Rose Byrne is Leah, a student coroner who believes the dead girl is actually a long-lost sister missing for 15 years. While that possibility upsets Leah's mother (Mary Steenburgen), who clings desperately to the hope that her daughter is still alive, Leah feels liberated by the notion -- and able to move on with a life that for too long has been overshadowed by her sister's ghost.
While the aforementioned vignettes boast first-rate writing and acting, the three that follow are the movie's best. In "The Wife," Mary Beth Hurt plays a long-suffering spouse who discovers evidence in a storage shed that her husband (Nick Searcy) might just be a serial killer. Marcia Gay Harden takes center stage in "The Mother," a poignant segment in which she portrays Melora, the mother of the titular dead girl, Krista Kutcher. When notified about the murder of her daughter, who ran away from home many years earlier, Melora traces Krista's dead-end life in the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles. The mother meets up with Krista's roommate (Kerry Washington) and learns more about a child she barely knew.
In the final segment, "The Dead Girl," we are finally introduced to the ill-fated Krista (Brittany Murphy). Like everything else that has preceded it, the vignette bristles with energy and pathos. It's also a bit of a revelation. Instead of finding a broken-down hooker, The Dead Girl presents us with a decidedly more intriguing character, a soon-to-be victim who is herself a sort of protector of vulnerable women and girls.
The movie wrings emotional power from each segment, a testament to Moncrieff's self-assured filmmaking and the amazing cast she has assembled. It is hardly surprising that Collette, Hurt and Harden turn in finely honed performances, but Byrne and Murphy are equally stunning. Speaking as a reviewer who has always found Murphy a somewhat obnoxious onscreen presence, that's saying something.
Moncrieff deftly avoids some of the pitfalls that dog other movies with similar episodic structures. The Dead Girl works its themes and concerns through each vignette, but it does so with subtlety and nuance. Ultimately, the picture is about female empowerment, as Krista's death serves as a sort of catalyst for the self-actualization of others, but the movie illustrates that without being preachy or obvious.
The picture quality is excellent, presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and preserving the saturated blues and greens offered by director of photography Michael Grady. Slight grain in a few of the nighttime scenes is by design. The colors are rich, the blacks inky.
The options are Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Surround, both of which are perfectly serviceable. The audio mix provides modestly immersive sound, but the movie is primarily dialogue-driven. Subtitles are in English and Spanish.
Moncrieff provides a laid-back, thoughtful and very informative commentary. The DVD also includes interviews with Collette, Murphy, Steenburgen, Franco, Harden, Byrne, Hurt, Washington and Moncrieff. Viewers can watch each separately or play all for an aggregate running time of 17 minutes, 30 seconds. Moncrieff discusses how the genesis of the story evolved from her experience as a juror on a murder trial. Surprisingly, Murphy offers the more incisive comments.
Also included is a theatrical trailer and previews for Kovak Box, The Breed and Disappeared.
Writer-director Karen Moncrieff crafts a dark, compelling film about the reverberations of murder. The Dead Girl ostensibly deals with death, but, in the end, it's more concerned with character and mood. It's a remarkable movie, and one that likely will stay with you long afterwards.