The Dead Girl

(USA - 2007)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Toni Collette, Rose Byrne, Mary Beth Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Kerry Washington, Brittany Murphy, Giovanni Ribisi, Josh Brolin, Mary Steenburgen, James Franco, Bruce Davison, Nick Searcy
Genre: Drama
Director: Karen Moncrieff
Screenplay: Karen Moncrieff
Cinematography: Michael Grady
Composer: Adam Gorgoni

Amongst the least pretentious non-linear ensemble pieces, Karen Moncrieff’s The Dead Girl isn’t about intertwining the characters or establishing any connections beyond the obvious, but rather illuminating the consequences loss has had on a group of disparate women. Instead of manufacturing coincidental encounters of the third rate kind, Moncrieff allows her film to simply be a series of thematically linked short stories.

The insightful self-contained portraits center on a specific topic, dealing with the absence of an important person. Starting with people who are coming into contact with the dead girl for the first time, the movie slowly edges closer to the heart of the story. In the end, the first three segments are the most interesting and original, as though these periphery stories normally wouldn’t be deemed essential enough to even warrant inclusion, they greatly expand upon our understanding of the far reaching effects of someone’s departure.

Life has been a perpetual haunting for these women even when the dead girl was alive, but the knowledge of her passing or their post death involvement with her has brought the unbearable nature of being without someone to the surface. Even in the case of Ruth (Mary Beth Hurt), the bitter woman who refuses to divorce her neglectful philandering husband Carl (Nick Searcy), the fact that he will soon return from his latest escapade doesn’t make him any less absent than the missing child or runaway teen. In a way, it makes his emotional abandonment all the more painful. Certainly the damage is enough to put Ruth in the same hole as the others, trapped in her own prison.

Defining their lives in reaction to their loss, each segment features a woman who is dead internally. With the exception of the final segment, which shows the last day of the eponymous character Krista (Brittany Murphy) the others are in various ways affected by, since they aren’t technically dead they can find the strength and courage to come back to life by trying to begin again. Awkward, isolated, and repressed Arden (Toni Collette) seizes her 15 minutes of fame for discovering the body to break free from her ungrateful, controlling and demeaning invalid mother (Piper Laurie), even if only to go out on what seems with as though it could be her first ever date with Rudy (Giovanni Ribisi), a creepy grocery store employee who recognizes her from the news and mostly talks about serial killers. Leah (Rose Byrne), a medical school student who interns prepping bodies for the coroner, discovers a birthmark on the dead girl which bares eerie resemblance to that of her 15-years lost sister. Her mother Beverley’s (Mary Steenburgen) relentless quest to find her missing sister, devoting most of her time to tending to tasks such as the perpetual dissemination of age-enhanced photos, has led her to be inattentive to the daughter she still has. The idea of closure, even if not of the ideal sort, allows depressed Leah to temporarily break from spending all her waking hours trying to distract herself from the grief by burying herself in work and study and embark upon a social life.

Though guys aren’t depicted favorably with abuse, repression, desperation, domination, and neglect being major themes, The Dead Girl isn’t the typical Lifetime or uplifting women’s movie. It’s dark and unsettling, featuring complex women who aren't easy to identify with. Though some characters wind up better off, The Dead Girl is hardly a showcase for girl power. It’s more a question of having the courage to take a step in another direction, which rather than being typically portrayed as a brilliant solution is still closer to filling their void with something arguably as problematic, or deciding to stay the course.

Though each story adds details to the previous, The Dead Girl is not about solving the mystery of who murdered Krista. Plot, solution, preaching, and moralizing are foreign to the narrative. The stories are mysterious and open ended, but hardly opaque as the point is to show the effects of loss from several angles. The movie is quite intense, in part due to there only being enough surface development to pique our curiosity about the unknown. It makes us want to plunge into the unknowable secret lives of others to discover if our guesses are accurate. Moncrieff does pierce through the surface, but carefully enough to allow only drops of the character’s pain and desperation to seep out.

Some viewers will be annoyed by t he lack of closure, but I prefer something that doesn’t consistently provide more explanation than is necessary and allows me to fill in the blanks and imagine. I’d rather be left wanting more than with the usual feeling that the characters lives essentially end as all the questions about their future are answered and it’s clear sailing from here on out.

A former actress, Karen Moncrieff scribes the movie to allow the actors to make it and deliver a memorable performance or fail. The lack of the dreadful and unnatural we’re explaining the plot dialogue combined with leaving their futures unsettled forces the performers to evoke years of miserable alive but dead status and hint at what’s in store through a brief sample of the present. Their emotions, or lack thereof, combined with the manner in which they are currently living provide us with most of the backstory we get. The primary aspect that makes the roles so difficult is the actors have 15-20 minutes to create dissimilar characters, the longstanding lifeless single-minded griever that has been existing since whatever tragedy stunted them and the new person that either attempts to break free of their jail or at least willingly chooses it. Brittany Murphy plays her typical cliche-ridden trailer trash skank, but Mary Beth Hurt, Toni Collette (even if outshined by Giovanni Ribisi), & Rose Byrne among others are more than up to the task. In the end, The Dead Girl is the type of film ensemble acting awards were created to honor.



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