Sunday, January 28, 2007

Film Review #79: The Dead Girl
Director: Karen Moncrieff
Cast: Brittany Murphy, Marsha Gay Harden, Rose Byrne

It’s all in the lede, print editors will tell you. This rule of thumb for securing rapid attention applies to cinema too in an impatient, information-glutted age. For example, Film Comment’s current issue lists last year’s 20 Best Unreleased Films, a nod to those made elsewhere that haven’t gotten to the US yet or even found a distributor here. The New York Times’ A.O Scott has just written about this shrinking film horizon. And it’s a rare film festival anymore whose application process lingers past watching a prospective entrant’s first five minutes – although where I live, the burgeoning three-year-old Syracuse International Film Festival has reversed this trend by offering a time and labor-intensive round of preview screenings for community input into the final mid-April competition program.

One casualty of the growing habit of giving up early may be director Karen Moncrieff’s The Dead Girl. A much better film than either critics or audiences are giving it credit for, this minor key miracle of ensemble acting and gracefully mirrored, incisive structure released theatrically in late December in Manhattan. I fear it may not see its early 2007 national roll-out because its opening vignette is so off-putting and grim. An anthology of five interlocking stories comprise The Dead Girl, about a serial killer’s young addict-prostitute victim and those people her death touches. We don’t actually see Krista (Brittany Murphy) until the final vignette, except fleetingly as a corpse in the opening.

Announced simply as The Stranger, this opening depicts the grisly discovery on a seedier stretch of sea-side dunes near Los Angeles by Arden, a lank-haired, radically depressed woman trapped in tending her sadistic, wheelchair-bound mother (Piper Laurie). First I thought, we have seen Toni Collette in roles like this too often. Really it’s just that roles like the one she had in The Night Listener go such a long way. Off-setting that, Giovanni Ribisi is thoroughly startling as Rudy, lean, tattooed, overly pushy grocery clerk aroused by Arden’s mere proximity to murder, a character whose reversal alerts us to look past easy plot predictions.

Four more distinct segments get us finally to Krista herself and her final day. Such interlocking stories are increasingly common as one departure from straightforward narrative. Rodrigo Garcia, most recently in Nine Lives, and Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity come quickly to mind, and of course Babel. The Dead Girl is also first cousin to Emilio Estevez’ Bobby, which structures its assassination tale by examining the network of people surrounding the event, yet leaves the mystery at its heart intact.

But it’s more than that. People leaving the theater during the opening vignette is especially ironic because The Dead Girl, more than another exercise in chopping up narrative, is really a film that meditates on cinematic endings. Last summer the Washington Post’s Charles Taylor wrote thoughtfully about how Hollywood fetishizes endings and how some films now resist that – Michael Haneke’s Caché, for example, or Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. As Taylor notes, other art forms like opera print the ending right in the program. The so-called problem of “spoiling the ending” often constricts filmmakers and certainly audiences. The Dead Girl is one of the more successful efforts I’ve seen to explore this in the sense that, if you hang around past the opening vignette, its shifting point of view maintains a requisite suspense even in the face of knowing Krista’s end.

After The Stranger, the subsequent vignettes are these. In The Sister, Rose Byrne plays Leah, a young student whose desperation to solve her older sister’s disappearance years ago has driven her to working in a morgue and performing post-mortem exams. Her parents’ obsessed belief – especially her mother (Mary Steenburgen) – that the sister will return alive has them all on hold. Fleetingly – most hope in this film seems fleeting – a physical similarity convinces Leah this corpse is her lost sister. As fleetingly, attentive watchers will see the sister’s drivers’ license among the killer’s memorabilia twice, the second time as it burns.

In The Wife, Ruth (Mary Beth Hurt, in a performance widely admired but surpassed by several others here) wastes away waiting for her silent, often missing husband to return to their trailer with its storage container business in the back, her fears and anger coiling ever tighter. As Melora in The Mother, Marcia Gay Harden (one such surpassing performance, along with Rose Byrne’s and, finally, Murphy herself) seeks out the effects of her runaway daughter Krista, discovering a girlfriend (an excellent Kerry Washington) and a child. Terrified, awkward, often nearly overcome, she inches forward with each revelation. This is some of Harden’s best work ever.

All these characters are women whose lives have been held in abeyance, who make a leap of faith. Most don’t clear the chasm. The literal presence of a morgue and then a storage container business as occupational settings in such a film is risky, but Moncrieff – who cut her directing teeth on episodes of HBO’s Six Feet Under after breaking out of an acting career on daytime soaps – finesses this handily.

It’s no wonder that Brittany Murphy works a lot (she has five features releasing in 2007, including Sin City 2). Here, she nails a certain jittery, gulping energy as Krista’s strung-out, impulsive, sometimes violent, needy prostitute, trying to get a stuffed animal to her little girl. Knowing what we do when Krista finally arrives, full-tilt, nothing gets in the way of this last clean slice of action. “Yes, I’ll take you, but first I have to make a stop,” the driver tells Krista. It’s not that you like it, but it’s worth the wait.

The Dead Girl is playing in limited release. Also see Agnes Bruckner, precocious star of Moncrieff's first feature, Blue Car, all grown up in the new release, Blood and Chocolate. This review was written for, where it appeared on 1/25/07.