A young runaway with a secret has turned to prostitution to make her way through life and give her three year-old daughter everything the young girl wants, but when she's crosses paths with a serial killer, the lives of five other woman change dramatically because of their link to "The Dead Girl."
Writer/director Karen Moncrieff ("Blue Car") has developed an omnibus film about the repression of and violence against women where the titular sacrificial lamb delivers a new lease on life to those who cross her path in death. While some may find the film unrelentingly depressing, it is a richly acted, well written piece that deserves consideration.
The film is divided into five chapters. In the first, 'The Stranger,' Arden (Toni Collette, "Little Miss Sunshine") is a mousy spinster who discovers the mutilated body in the fields near her house. After pocketing the dead girl's gold 'Taken' necklace, she returns home and notifies the police, much to the chagrin of her mother (Piper Laurie in full on "Carrie" mode). There's some shared secret regarding a death in these two women's past, but when Arden begins to be noticed after a television appearance, particularly by grocery clerk Rudy (Giovanni Ribisi, "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow"), who asks her out, Arden is finally able to break free of her mother's abusive tyranny.
'The Sister' finds forensics student Leah (Rose Byrne, "Troy," "Marie Antoinette") in a state of suspended animation, despite the attentions of handsome colleague Derek (James Franco, "Spider-Man 2"). Leah's entire life has been overshadowed by her mother's (Mary Steenburgen, "Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School") undying resolve to find her other daughter who disappeared when Leah was just a child. When the dead girl's body shows up on Leah's examination table, she is sure it is her missing sister and is able to close her chapter and begin to live.
The film's strongest performance is given by Mary Beth Hurt ("The Exorcism of Emily Rose") as 'The Wife," Ruth, a drab religious woman whose husband Carl (Nick Searcy, "The Assassination of Richard Nixon," "Flicka") has a tendency to disappear for days on end on what he insists are 'drives.' Ruth is sure he spends the time visiting prostitutes and harasses him until he apologizes - and leaves again. When Carl's coworker fails to arrive to manage the storage facility he manages, Ruth makes a startling find in a unit listed as empty which cedes control of the cyclically sick union into her hands.
'The Mother' features two women with vastly different relationships to the deceased Krista. Marcia Gay Harden ("Mystic River," "American Dreamz") is Krista's mother Melora, a well off middle class woman of high morals (all of the older generation of women in "The Dead Girl" cling to religion) who is devastated to learn of her daughter's fate. When she goes to the motel that was Krista's last known address, she meets Rosetta (Kerry Washington, "The Last King of Scotland"), a defiant young hooker who condemns Melora for not taking action while her daughter was being abused by her step-father. Melora, now divorced, is shocked at this revelation, but finds redemption in the granddaughter, Ashley, she did not know she had. A hesitant Rosetta, who Melora has intuited was Krista's lover, is left with the lifeline of the older woman's address and phone number.
Finally, 'The Dead Girl' moves back in time, giving us a very alive Krista (Brittany Murphy, "Little Black Book," "Sin City"). We're introduced as she purchases an extravagantly large stuffed rabbit for her daughter's upcoming third birthday while her biker john, Tarlow (Josh Brolin, "Into the Blue"), buys that possessive piece of jewelry. She begs for a drive to where her daughter lives (someplace inexplicably suburban given the child's subsequent circumstances), which he agrees to, only to retract at the eleventh hour. Krista returns to her room and finds Rosetta's been beaten by another john. She kicks the guy's ass, borrows a bike and sets out with her bunny, but the motorcycle breaks down and when she juts out her thumb, Carl is the guy who stops.
Murphy may play her role like a cross between Courtney Love and Chloe Webb in Love's "Sid and Nancy," but there is a poignancy in someone so full of life after having been dealt such a bad hand. And while male characters are often responsible for the hardships these women face, "The Dead Girl" is not a male bashing film. Mothers, inadvertently or not, all negatively impact the lives of their daughters, until Krista is determined to halt the cycle. Like last year's "Nine Lives," which also presented a complex cross section of loosely connected women, Moncrieff achieves power in her overlapping, but separate portraits.
Robin's review coming soon!
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