January 07, 2007

MOVIES: The Dead Girl (Karen Moncrieff, 2006)

The body of a young woman is found in the Hollywood hills, and Moncrieff explores the ramifications for five women in a series of vignettes; the movie's sections are mostly unconnected, with only minor crossover of any characters.

In "The Stranger," we see the discovery of the body by Arden (Toni Collette, who is -- as always -- spot-on), a painfully shy, quiet woman whose life is dominated by her role as caregiver to her hateful mother (Piper Laurie, hamming it up far too broadly). "The Sister" features Rose Byrne as a coroner-in-training who believes that the body may be that of her sister, who has been missing for 15 years, and hopes that the discovery will allow her family to finally get on with their lives; Byrne tries hard, but can't overcome the segment's movie-of-the-week flavor. "The Wife" is Mary Beth Hurt, trapped by her miserable marriage and by her own rage; her connection to the body is a less direct one, but it forces her to make some difficult choices.

The movie's strongest segment is "The Mother," featuring an excellent Marcia Gay Harden, who has come from rural Washington to Los Angeles after the body has been identified as that of her daughter, and Kerry Washington, as a friend of the dead girl; their scenes together are painfully intense, as Harden realizes just how much she didn't know about her daughter's life.

Finally, we meet "The Dead Girl" herself; she's played by Brittany Murphy, who overemphasizes the brittleness and hard edges of the character. It's the least interesting section of the movie, both because it's mostly showing us things we've already figured out in the earlier scenes and because we know how it's going to end.

Moncrieff's clearly a talented director, and she draws fine performances from her large cast (which also includes Mary Steenburgen, Bruce Davison, James Franco, and Giovanni Ribisi). But the movie is so unrelentingly bleak -- there's no humor, no happiness, and virtually no hope for any of these characters -- that it's difficult to enjoy it as anything other than a series of well-executed acting exercises.

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