The Austin Chronicle

The Dead Girl

Rated R, 94 min. Directed by Karen Moncrieff. Starring Toni Collette, Brittany Murphy, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Beth Hurt, Rose Byrne, Kerry Washington, Nick Searcy, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Giovanni Ribisi, Mary Steenburgen, Piper Laurie, Bruce Davison.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Feb. 9, 2007

“You’ll never know dear, how much I love you; please don’t take my sunshine away.” So goes the refrain from the popular song that can be heard as The Dead Girl begins to wind down. The lyrics are plaintive and haunting, fading into the night sky like an unanswered prayer. Indeed, there is little sunshine in The Dead Girl, Moncrieff’s sophomore effort following her debut four years ago with Blue Car. The Dead Girl is bleak, sad, and depressing – which is exactly what Moncrieff intends it to be, although it would probably help the viewer to be apprised of that quality going in, since most of us do not head to the movies in search of a bad time. Yet a bad time is what is had once this story’s good-time girl, Krista (Murphy, delivering the best work of her career), is found dead. Moncrieff, who also wrote the script, creates a murder mystery with little mystery, a thriller about a serial killing with no thrills whatsoever. She fashions the film into five distinct episodes, each one focusing on how the murder affects various female characters, whose relationships to the dead girl are not always direct or immediately obvious. It is not until the last episode that we witness, in retrospect, Krista’s final hours and come to know something about this dead person. The episodes function more like interrelated short stories, each one a discrete encapsulation of woe that nevertheless absorbs some of the ultimate sadness enveloping the dead girl. The film’s first two episodes are the weakest narratively, although the episodic structure provides a sizable number of actors with small but substantive roles. The Dead Girlis a showcase for all the actors, male and female. In the first segment, “The Stranger,” Collette plays the timid woman who finds the battered corpse and reports it to the police. Kowtowed by her cruel mother (Laurie in shrewish Carrie mode) but emboldened by her moment of local fame, she is seduced by a young man (Ribisi) who displays an unnatural curiosity about serial killers. Byrne plays a forensics student in the second episode, “The Sister,” who hopes that the body in their morgue is that of her sister, who was abducted 15 years ago. She wants this to be true so she can finally have some closure, unlike her mother (Steenbergen), who continues to believe her daughter is alive. With the third episode, “The Wife,” Moncrieff’s film kicks into high gear as Hurt plays an extremely unhappy woman who suddenly discovers the truth about her husband’s (Searcy) long disappearances from home. The most heartbreaking is “The Mother,” in which Harden (in a restrained yet jagged performance) plays the dead girl’s mother, who comes to retrieve her granddaughter from foster care and learns from Krista’s friend and sister prostitute (Washington) the ugly truth about why Krista decided to leave home. Only in the last chapter do we see how Krista came to be where she was on the night she was murdered. There is no surprise or justice or sense to the whole thing. Just sadness. And a sense of all the lonely people and where they all come from.

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