Arden, a hard-knock woman (Toni Collette) comes across the naked body of a teenage murder victim while walking near her home where she subsists as the sole caregiver for her infirm and virulently abusive mother. Pictured on TV in a news report about the murder, Arden attracts attention during a trip into town for groceries. Soon she has a date with Rudy (Giovanni Ribisi), a grocery clerk who’s obsessed with serial killers. Rudy is a gentleman. He assures Arden that he won’t hurt her. “Thank you,” she says. With this setup writer/director Karen Moncrieff promises both a mystery and a quirky romance, neither of which materializes. Arden’s story is the first--and most intriguing--in a series of five interconnected pieces that comprise The Dead Girl. Each story follows a female protagonist whose life is affected by the dead girl’s murder. After a contrived semi-resolution, the Arden and Rudy story is whisked away and replaced by the next tableau.
Pointed dialogue, brisk pacing, and powerful performances – the cast also includes Mary Steenburgen, Piper Laurie, Brittany Murphy, Mary Beth Hurt, Rose Byrne, and Josh Brolin, among others – keep The Dead Girl
solidly entertaining. The weakest, least convincing moments in the film are the careless, cliché-ridden references to violence and abuse against women. Moncreiff’s true attention centers on the life and death conflicts at the heart of primary relationships. In one story a mother and daughter are locked in battle over how long to hold on to the past. In the film’s most moving performance, Marcia Gay Harden, playing the dead girl’s mother, pursues a connection with her lost daughter by learning about the life she was leading before her murder.
The final vignette – featuring the dead girl herself – is disappointingly heavy handed. (The dead girl’s identity is no longer a surprise since her photograph at the medical examiner’s office earlier in the film was a photograph of Brittany Murphy.) We learn among other meaningful non-revelations that she was trying to take a large, pink stuffed animal to her little girl when she met the killer. This sequence coasts on the four strong narratives which precede it, and on Brittany Murphy’s engaging physical charisma, leaving the impression of the movie’s structure as a cleverly crafted bait and switch.
Sarah Bardin writes and lives in New York City.