Monday, February 05, 2007

Review: The Dead Girl

A Lakeshore Entertainment/Pitbull Pictures/First Look International release 2006
Written & Directed by Karen Moncrieff

The clues to a young woman's death come together as the lives of seemingly unrelated people begin to intersect.

Karen Moncrieff's second feature film (following 2002's Blue Car, which I've never seen but hear is pretty good) attempts to piece together the tragic story of a murdered hooker (played with ease by Brittany Murphy) through seven separate mini-shorts. Each short follows a different character who is somehow connected to the dead girl - the woman who discovers the body, the coroner, the dead girl's mother, etc. Running about twenty minutes each, the stories are contained in terms of their protagonists, but each reveal something new about the girl who was murdered. That is, until the end, when we are given the dead girls story in it's revealed glory.

It's very difficult to make a movie that has seven different protagonists. First, you have to make sure each character is believable, or you'll lose the audience right away. Then you have to give them each a story purpose, and that also has to be believable or once again you'll find yourself without an audience. In the case of The Dead Girl, Moncrieff and her actors treat the subject with such emotional flair that it's hard not to feel empathy for her characters. However, the seriousness of Moncrieff's tone and tendancy towards exploiting the emotional punch makes the film strangely unpalatable. Some of the stories follow such obvious tracks that it turns the premise into something almost laughable - take, for example, the story of the coronary student (Rose Byrne) who, upon examining the body, imagines that it's her long lost sister who's disappearance has caused her and her family grief for over a decade. Others simply lack focus or any clear direction - the story of the recluse (Toni Collette) with the abusive mother (Piper Laurie), who has to confront death up close before she can 'really live' (which apparently means having rape-like sex). While these short sections certainly work to give small clues to piece together the story of the dead girl, they don't exactly work as their own contained storylines. They're boring, and the movie suffers for it.

That said, the middle section following the wife of the murderer features a stellar performance by Mary Beth Hurt and is easily the most interesting. It runs on the idea that sometimes the things we love most are also the things we hate (pretty obvious), but the way the characters interact is covered in layers, and it works suprisingly well. From a technical end, the film is quite pretty. Nothing too impressive, but well handled and visually compelling. Likewise, it features performances by some of today's best actresses, including Mary Beth Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, and Mary Steenburgen.

All in all, The Dead Girl comes across as a high concept Lifetime movie of the week with a slightly larger budget. Mostly it's because the mini-narratives are simply unfufilling. I don't know what Moncrieff could have done differently, because the film is anchored in the individual stories, but I guess she could have been more adventurous in her writing, instead of relying on usual murder-aftermath story cliches. See it on video for the performances.

The Dead Girl is nominated for three Indie Spirit Awards, including Best Feature, Best Director, and Best Supporting Female for Mary Beth Hurt.

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