A morose elegy to a serial killer’s female victims told from five perspectives, Karen Moncrieff’s “The Dead Girl” examines death, loss and loneliness in American life. More ambitious than her 2002 debut, “Blue Car,” Moncrieff’s new film maintains her focus on women, expanding to include a range of ages, circumstances and psychologies. Pic’s drama, however, is deliberately fractured into a quintet of stories that vary considerably in their overall impact. Starry lineup will ensure a strong late December opening for this dark indie, with a vital second life in vid and cable to follow.
In its structure of brief portraits and roster of strong women actors, “The Dead Girl” recalls the films of Rodrigo Garcia (“Nine Lives”). Moncreiff’s pic, like Garcia’s, is a kind of gallery movie: Aud lacks a complete view until every portrait has been seen. Structure suffers, however, because some of the portraits are weaker than others.
Pic starts strongly with opening part titled “The Stranger.” (With each section individually titled and no general opening title, some viewers may be momentarily confused that they’ve walked into a feature titled “The Stranger.”) Haggard, beaten-down Arden (Toni Collette), who is constantly showered with insults by her infirmed mother (Piper Laurie, verging on the ridiculous), comes upon the body of a murdered woman one day while wandering in a nearby field.
Later, desperate to escape from her stifling life, painfully shy Arden gives in to heavily tattooed supermarket clerk Rudy (Giovanni Ribisi). Despite a certain degree of dramatic manipulation suggesting that Rudy may be a killer, section builds a real tension.
“The Sister” observes forensics student Leah (Rose Byrne) as she examines the corpse that Arden found. She believes it could be her sister Jenny, who has been missing for several years, but her mother Beverly (Mary Steenburgen) still thinks Jenny is alive.
Most unsettling episode is “The Wife,” focusing on blue-collar couple Ruth (Mary Beth Hurt) and Carl (Nick Searcy). Both work for a storage rental facility that’s adjacent to their cheapo abode, and it’s here that Ruth accidentally discovers what looks like murder evidence, including the ID of one of eight female victims of a serial killer. Moncrieff inserts a single shot that indicates the killer’s identity, but more importantly intensifies Ruth’s subsequent actions, which show the lengths people will go to for self-preservation.
The emotionally riveting “The Mother” features an exceptional Marcia Gay Harden as Melora, who is told the dead girl found in the field is her runway daughter Krista (Brittany Murphy). Melora ventures to the fleabag motel where Krista last stayed with bedraggled hooker Rosetta (Kerry Washington). A fine study of a grieving mother’s stunned realization of how far her child had actually drifted from her, this piece — like the opener and “The Wife” — has the gravitas of a well-drawn short story.
Finale, with pic’s title, is a real letdown, partly because it repeats in large measure what was learned in the previous section and partly because Murphy is all histrionics and no substance in the role of a troubled young woman who hangs out with low-lifes like her pimp, Tarlow (Josh Brolin), and has apparently stopped taking care of her own daughter. Pic’s weak ending demonstrates that its multi-narrative strategy, though full of cinematic potential, also holds traps for a film’s overall impact.
Women lead the way here, with an extremely glammed-down Collette, a nearly unrecognizable Hurt, and, in yet another role that confirms her status as an actor of uncommon power and insight, Harden holding forth with performances of great impact and weight. Byrne is quite effective in an under-written role, while Murphy remains problematic.
Desaturated color scheme distinguishes Michael Grady’s suitably dark-toned lensing, while other production elements are pro. Make-up effects are both ultra-realist and worthy of the best horror filmmaking.