We hear it on the news twice a week, it seems: A young dead woman has been found on the road, in a ditch, back behind someone's barn, etc. We give the news a casual listen, perhaps offer a brief bit of sympathy to the girl's family, and then throw our focus back into our own lives. The world can be an ugly place; best not to dwell on the more horrific aspects of it ... until we have to.
Karen Moncrieff's follow-up to 2002's Blue Car is a decidedly unique take on the "serial killer movie." The Dead Girl is not a mystery, nor is it really a thriller. It's more of an anthology piece that introduces us to a collection of people on the periphery of a horrible murder. It's not a movie about the killer, per se, nor is it a character study of the victim ... except when it is. It's a tough movie to describe, a tougher movie to "enjoy," but an easy one to recommend -- provided you don't mind a little darkness, gloom and sobriety mixed in with your indie-style ensemble pieces.
Brittany Murphy plays runaway prostitute Krista, a girl whose short life is soon to be ended by the blade of a rather mundane serial killer. But we don't get to meet Krista until the final section of The Dead Girl. The bulk of the film is dedicated to characters on the outer fringes of Krista's life (and death): The stranger who discovers the poor girl's body, the young woman who knows the newly-discovered corpse must belong to her long lost sister; the wife who begins to suspect that her husband has some seriously disturbing night-time hobbies; the mother who lost a daughter but may have found something else; and, finally, the girl herself.
Taken individually, each story is a fine piece of character-based storytelling; Moncrieff strikes an admirable balance between low-budget rawness and (thanks to her cast) high-quality production value. Taken as one piece, The Dead Girl is more than the sum of its five segments; it's a quietly haunting and strangely touching little piece that knows what you're expecting from a story like this -- and does a fine job of bucking those expectations once in a while. The film is not without its flaws: Piper Laurie shows up in story #1 as the sort of ridiculously overprotective zealot-mom caricature she's been churning out forever; story #2 feels more than a little disconnected from its siblings.
But the few rough spots and minor speed bumps add very few blemishes and do little to mar the movie as a whole. It's often said that an anthology is only is good as its best segment, and if that's the case then The Dead Girl (which offers three out of five sections that are damn near excellent) is hitting well above average. This is not a Rashomon-style multi-perspective look at the same crime from varying angles, but sort of a cinematic spider web, one that starts with a terrible crime and then just sort of branches out into different (sometimes seemingly random) directions. So if you're not exactly fascinated by story #2, it doesn't take long before the next chapter kicks in. (For me the most effective segments were the first and the last, but #4 is the real heart-breaker, and it features some supremely solid work from Marcia Gay Harden.)
Moncrieff's "multi-angle" approach to the story is a clever enough conceit to keep an (attentive) audience member on their toes, but she really hit the jackpot in her casting sessions. As the titular character, Brittany Murphy delivers some of the best work she's ever done, while each mini-movie is populated by a solid stable of performers. Standouts include Mary Beth Hurt as a truly desperate housewife, Kerry Washington as a sadly realistic young prostitute, Toni Collette as the painfully timid woman who discovers the crime, and Josh Brolin as a strangely fascinating lowlife. (Also scattered throughout the film are James Franco, Rose Byrne, Giovanni Ribisi, Nick Searcy and Mary Steenburgen.)
The Dead Girl is (obviously) not a fun-time flick by any stretch of the imagination, but if you're weary of crime stories that follow the conventional path on the way to a generically inevitable conclusion, it's a title you might want to throw a red circle around. The roughly-hewn stories, raw emotion and admirably sober presentation might actually work better on a small screen, so if you have to wait for the DVD, that's just fine.