Art House Mystery
|Starring:||Toni Collette, Rose Byrne, Mary Beth Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Steenburgen, Giovanni Ribisi, James Franco, Brittany Murphy|
Karen Moncrieff’s “Blue Car” is one of the most auspicious, and overlooked, debuts of the past few years. Though it fell a few steps short of greatness, the movie pointed toward exciting things to come for its director. “The Dead Girl” is an ambitious sophomore effort that shows Moncrieff growing artistically, even if the end result is mildly disappointing. At worst, this is a case of potential only partially realized.
“The Dead Girl” is an ensemble murder mystery told via a fractured, non-linear narrative that links its characters together through the discovery of a young woman’s corpse. The story is broken into five chapters, all introduced via intertitles. A woman named Arden (Toni Collette), who cares for her wretched mother (Piper Laurie), finds the dead body in a field near her home and becomes the target of a media frenzy. A forensics student, Leah (Rose Byrne), examines the corpse and thinks it might be the body of her long missing sister. Ruth (Mary Beth Hurt) is stuck in a loveless, abusive marriage, and believes her husband (Nick Searcy) is soliciting prostitutes, only to uncover the man’s much more sinister actions. Melora (Marcia Gay Harden), a woman residing in Washington, travels to Los Angeles to identify the corpse as her daughter, Krista (Britanny Murphy), and learns of her child’s hellish life from Krista’s prostitute ex-roommate, Rosetta (Kerry Washington). In the final chapter, we meet the street hardened Krista as she attempts to find a way to deliver a birthday present to her three-year old daughter. After a violent confrontation with one of Rosetta’s clients, Krista hitches a ride to visit her child, a decision that turns out to be her final mistake.
The story’s structure deflates tension, not only because we know of Krista’s impending demise, but also due to Moncrieff revealing the culprit, an alleged serial killer, well before we reach the climax. The focus is obviously placed more on character than plot, and the director isn’t interested in turning the film into a standard “whodunit.” Instead, we are slowly given the pieces to a puzzle that puts itself together, and this method of storytelling, while sophisticated, simply isn’t the best fit for the material.
The talented cast turns in the anticipated fine work, with arguably the best performances coming from lesser decorated members, Rose Byrne and Britanny Murphy as two very different women. Toni Collette’s Arden is a head scratcher, her bizarre behavior not really given a strong enough root, which ultimately reduces her character to something of an indie film caricature. But overall, it’s the actors who keep this bleak film from becoming a complete downer.
With its deliberate pace and serious tone, “The Dead Girl” feels like it should amount to more than the final outcome. Any movie that traverses such grim territory and features these kinds of tortured characters really needs to work on a greater level. Ultimately, it’s difficult to view this movie as anything other than an unusually told mystery, which would be easier to accept if Moncrieff wasn’t so obviously talented.
“The Dead Girl” also proves that Moncrieff is a director who has no problem attracting top flight talent to her projects, a quality that should serve her career well down the road. Though this movie doesn’t live up to expectations, you can’t help but feel this filmmaker will still deliver a lot of interesting work in the future. And that fact alone might be enough to make “The Dead Girl” worth a look.