27 February 2007 | drexelspivey
Dark comment on the hidden strength of women
"The Dead Girl" A film review by Brian Murphy "The Dead Girl," writer/director Karen Moncrieff's (a former television actress and director) penetrating new film, connects five women affected by the death of a young woman (Brittany Murphy). The film, split up into five chapters, reads like a book, with each chapter examining the changes in their lives brought about by the brutal murder of someone most of them have never met.
"The Stranger," "The Sister," "The Wife," "The Mother" and "The Dead Girl" comprise a fascinating, multiple character study of abused, confused and repressed women. The murdered woman winds up being an altruistic, sacrificial lamb that alters the course of others for better and for worse.
Ms. Moncrieff has assembled a stellar cast. Toni Collette ("Little Miss Sunshine") shines as Arden, an emotionally bruised daughter, isolated from society by her abusive, invalid mother. After discovering the corpse of a young woman, her world is turned upside down; the media hounds her, she is romantically pursued by a creepy grocery clerk (the underrated Giovanni Ribisi), and she rebels against her passive nature, lashing out at a mother (Piper Laurie) who, referring to her deceased brother, remarks, "He (God) should have taken you instead!" Rose Byrne is phenomenal as Leah, a young woman desperately searching for a way to put the 15-year disappearance of her sister to rest. While her mother (Mary Steenburgen) still posts age-enhanced pictures of her daughter, desperately hoping for her return, Leah wishes for her family to accept the fact that her sister must be dead, in order for them all to move on. Her occupation as a coroner perfectly corresponds to her character. When she comes across the corpse that Arden discovered, she immediately finds a birthmark similar to that of her sister. Finally feeling the closure she has been seeking, Leah embarks on a life separate from work and her therapist's office. She responds to the advances of slightly creepy coworker Derek (James Franco of "Spiderman"), and has sex in a scene Ms. Moncrieff deftly designed to express release.
Mary Beth Hurt (as Ruth,) and Marcia Gay Harden ("Pollock,") present two antithetical characters seeking redemption for, perhaps, their denial. Ruth, a religious, forgotten wife, believes her despondent husband may be a serial killer, while Harden's Melora is the mother of a woman possibly murdered by Ruth's husband. Ultimately, their choices define them. Ruth chooses to remain in denial, while Melora seeks the cause of her daughter's decision to run away. In the end, one is lost and haunted, while the other earns redemption.
Not to be forgotten, Brittany Murphy ("8 Mile"), as Krista (a.k.a. "The Dead Girl") gives a spectacular performance that serves as the essential footnote to Moncrieff's film. Murphy delivers as a junkie prostitute who, despite her troubled past, is still a loving mother.
Karen Moncrieff's script may have difficulty appealing to a mass male audience. Her script is gender-centric, studying the growth or regression of several female leads. The few male characters involved are either initially or ultimately presented as unsympathetic, withdrawn, or potential sources of violence. This does not exclude children, like the young boy who punches his sister in the arm. Men are not definitively portrayed as evil, but the film does cast a wary glare in their direction.
However, Ms. Moncrieff's writing is insightful, and her direction is expressive. She uses a myriad of close-ups to showcase the talents of her fine ensemble cast and also to express a claustrophobic tone-Her women are often emotionally stunted, cornered by men, or voluntarily succumb to their own fears. Their transitions define this empathetic yet brutally honest film.