Karen Moncrieff delivers another great film after her 2003 debut, Blue Car. The Dead Girl consists of five vignettes showing five women who are all living unhappy lives. The reasons for these women living the way they do as well as how they go about changing their situations are different, each of them trapped for different reasons, but why they each decide to finally take the first step is not. The one thing that each of these women have in common, even though they are not even aware of each other’s existance, is the discovery of a dead hooker’s body. This event is the catalyst that has them doing something to change their fate as the rippling effect of one woman’s life ending spreads outward to modify the lives of five others.
The Stranger - Arden (Toni Collette) is the woman who finds the body. She is trapped in an extremely dysfunctional relationship caring for her ailing mother (Piper Laurie) she lives with. Arden is mousy and timid, chained to her abusive mother by guilt. She finds new strength from a necklace she takes from around the dead girl’s neck. This coupled with her new relationship with Rudy (Giovanni Ribisi), the bag boy from the grocery store, gives Arden the courage to finally make a decision she has been too scared to make. The Stranger immediately displays some great acting from all involved, especially Collete and Laurie, the latter who channels her memorable role as Carrie‘s mother – but this time even more frightening and real. Ribisi comes off quiet and creepy while still playing a familiar character, but like the other males in the rest of the film, takes a back seat to his female counterparts.
The Sister – A young woman named Rose Byrne), is in charge of prepping the dead girl’s body at the morgue. Leah’s entire life has been defined by the abduction of her sister 15 years earlier. Her mother’s (Mary Steenburgen) unrelenting search for her abducted daughter and her firm belief that she is still alive has left Leah living in the shadow of a sister who is no longer there. It has gotten to the point that Leah is on the brink of a total breakdown. She is depressed, in therapy, antisocial and all parental support seems to have been absent. When Leah finds evidence that convinces her that the dead girl may be her missing sister, we get a brief glimpse of how Leah’s life would be if she and her family could find closure in regards to the missing sibling. Byrne is convincing as a girl who has lived a life with parents too focused on something else besides her. She is desperate to “bury” her sister and is close to coming apart at the seams. Steenburgen, while only on screen for a short amount of time, is just as convincing as a mother in denial and so blinded with the fear of dealing with the death of a daughter, that she neglects the living one in front of her. James Franco makes an appearance as Leah’s co-worker and possible love interest while Bruce Davison has a small amount of screen time as Leah’s father.(
The Wife - Ruth (Mary Beth Hurt) is a woman living a very unhappy existence in a loveless marriage with her seemingly timid husband (Nick Searcy). They live on the grounds of a storage facility the husband operates. Ruth constantly finds herself sitting alone while her secretive husband leaves the house for unexplained and extended night drives. On one of these particular occasions, Ruth makes a discovery that reveals her husband is not who he seems and is possibly capable of horrendous and brutal acts. With this discovery, and a possible connection between her husband and the dead girl, Ruth must now decide whether to continue to live unhappily and stand by her husband – or face the possibility of living the rest of her life alone. Her decision, and her following actions are surprising. Hurt is amazing to watch in this role and like the rest of the women in this film, completely transforms herself into this character.
The Mother – Melora (Marcia Gay Harden) is the estranged mother of the dead girl, whose name is Krista. After identifying the body, Melora’s desire to know more about the final days of her runaway daughter leads her to a roadside hotel and Rosetta (Kerry Washington), a street hardened prostitute who lived with her daughter. Through Rosetta, Melora learns about her daughter’s life and is made privy to some shocking revelations that leave the grieving woman reeling with even more regret and guilt. These bits of information lead Melora to a possibility of a type of redemption and a possible way to right a wrong she didn’t know she committed. This by far was the strongest of the stories with an excellent performance by Harden. You can almost feel all the emotions this mother is going through each time she learns something new about her daughter, each piece of information stabbing into her and twisting. Washington is surprisingly effective as as the prostitute friend who finds that despite the fact that she and Melona are opposites in almost every conceivable way, they do share a common bond in more ways than just the death of Melora’s daughter.
The Dead Girl – The fifth and final story takes us back before Krista’s (Brittany Murphy) death. We see Krista as a young tempest who is on one of the lowest rungs of society’s ladder. A prostitute and a junkie. We are introduced to her while she is at a mall with one of her clients, a biker named Tarlow (Josh Brolin), who is buying her the necklace we saw at the beginning of the film. Murphy delivers one of the best roles of her career with Krista. She is not the typical drug using prostitute seen in film. Instead of an unlikable, dopey and dumb character that illicits no sympathy, Krista is full of life and a strong-willed person, a protector of sorts and refuses to lay down and die no matter what life continues to throw at her. A more realistic version of the cliched “stripper with a heart of gold”. Krista’s fate is already known to the viewer, which make watching the events that happen in her last day of living more tragic.
Acknowledgment must be given to Moncrieff for assembling such a great cast of actors. The ladies in this film are top-notch and all seem to be in their second skin. Some of the scenes are so memorable they will stick with you long after you have seen the film. From the humiliating taunts from Arden’s mother directed to her on the eve of a date, to a double-heartbreaking scene involving Leah and her mother in a restaurant, The Dead Girl has numerous scenes that place each of these actors talent in the spotlight without having any of them take center stage. This film is not a thriller or a whodunit, it is a sobering character study and how the death of a human being can have a rippling effect that alters different people in different ways. In The Dead Girl, Krista’s death is what it takes to get a group of flawed women who have been living in different types of denial, to make steps towards changing the course their lives have been headed. Great performances, great movie. Highly recommended.