The Dead Girl, rated 75% fresh by rottentomatoes.com, appears straightforward enough at first. The title would seem to say it all. But writer/director Karen Moncrieff (Blue Car) veers off the beaten storytelling path and instead rushes headlong into the prickly bramble of human relations. If you could shove troubled people under a microscope, this is pretty much what you would find on the slide. [Warning: Spoilers ahead.]
Told in five interconnected vignettes, the movie begins with "The Stranger." Toni Collette plays Arden, the hangdog caregiver to her foul and vile mother (Piper Laurie, playing up the crazy every bit as much as she did in Carrie). While out on a walk, Arden discovers the mutilated corpse of a young woman, Krista. Arden alerts the police, which serves to earn her nothing more than her mother’s ire and venomous tongue. At first glance, Arden would seem to be shy and insular, but when she accepts a date with grocery store bag boy Rudy (Giovanni Ribisi), you can see that something within her has crossed over to a place beyond the crushing walls of her mother’s house, with all of her mother’s things, and worst of all, with her mother. In a truly inspired and richly telling scene, Arden, nude as the dead body she stumbled upon, strikes the same pose as the corpse’s final repose, careful to curl her fingers just so. Disturbing? Certainly. Revealing of her psyche? Without question.
"The Sister" opens with Beverley (Mary Steenburgen) choosing a picture of her older daughter for age progression to post on "Missing" fliers. Though her daughter has been gone for more than fifteen years, she still holds out a blind and total hope that the girl (now a woman) will be found and reunited with the family.
Beverley’s younger daughter, Leah (Rose Byrne), a forensic pathologist graduate student, is every bit as stuck as her parents in this time warp of waiting, but not by choice. Her idea to have a memorial service for the lost child/sibling is struck down vehemently by Beverley. While Leah examines Krista’s corpse and collects evidence, she discovers an unusually placed birthmark that would seem identical to one her sister possessed. Convinced that this is the body of her disappeared sister, Leah arranges for a dental records comparison. Suddenly feeling unburdened, as if this nightmare could draw to a close and the family could finally mourn and move on with their lives, Leah for the first time accepts an invitation to a party thrown by a fellow forensics student, Derek (James Franco). She and the soulful-eyed lad connect at the party by sitting on the backyard swings, harking back to her own lost childhood. She smiles, she laughs, she has sex with Derek. But the new day isn’t a new day, so to speak. Leah learns that the dead girl is not her long lost sister, and quickly slips back into her near-catatonic collective family state of merely existing. In the very last scene in this chapter, she does reach out to Derek for help.
In "The Wife," Ruth (Mary Beth Hurt) is married to a man, Carl, who disappears for days at a time. During one of his outings, she discovers his dark secret in one of the self-storage units he manages. Realizing she is married to the serial killer who’s all over the news, she does what anyone would do: She collects all the evidence — his trophies taken from the dead women — and heads for the police station. But she can’t bring herself to get out of the car and go in. Instead, she drives back to the storage unit and burns the evidence. Then she strips out of her own clothing and burns that too. She stands there nude while the flames leap up before her, while all of the evidence of the monster she’s married to is consumed, and then she simply walks away. In those actions, she chooses to be complicit to all of her husband’s crimes. And why, I asked myself, would she not turn in the husband she seems to despise? Fear. Perhaps fear of such a huge truth, perhaps garden-variety fear of being alone, perhaps the fear of how his murderous ways will reflect on her. Any way you slice it, her motivations are driven by fear.
"The Mother" finds Melora (Marcia Gay Harden) sitting across a desk from a detective at a police station. Her daughter, Krista, ran away from home as a young teen and was never heard from again. When the detective leaves her alone with her daughter’s file for a moment, she looks at the pictures of the body, finds a Post-it note with her daughter’s last known address on it and copies it down. Krista, working as a prostitute, lived in a run-down motel with another prostitute, Rosetta (Kerry Washington). Melora has to pay Rosetta just to be let into the room, to see where and how her daughter had been living. Immediately Melora starts questioning Rosetta about her daughter, trying to somehow connect and figure out not only what had led her daughter so far from her upper middle class origins, but also ultimately why she ran away all those years ago. Rosetta, her voice positively dripping battery acid, informs Melora that her second husband had been raping Krista, right under her nose, and that Krista assumed her mother knew all about it. Here, the subtlety of change that moves across Harden’s features as she not only listens to what Rosetta is saying, but also accepts it as truth, is both heartbreaking and mesmerizing.
Unlike Ruth in "The Wife," Melora allows the hideous truth to exist; she does not obliterate it with the sheer will of not wanting to face something so ugly. Because of this, Rosetta softens toward Melora. Melora notices this and can see that Rosetta cared very deeply about Krista and asks if she loved her daughter. Rosetta breaks down in tears, admitting that she did, that Krista wanted to have her daughter live with them and try, try somehow to be like a family. Astounded at the news that she has a heretofore unknown granddaughter, Melora asks Rosetta to take her to see the child. They find the girl, Ashley, living in squalor with a woman that Krista was paying to keep the child. Melora takes the girl with her, and even offers to take Rosetta with her back to Washington. Rosetta declines and Melora gives her a blank check — just so she’ll have her address if she changes her mind.
In “The Dead Girl,” a still-alive Krista (Brittany Murphy) enters center screen. From the get-go, it’s clear that she only wants to get to a neighboring town to spend her daughter’s third birthday with her and give her a special gift. To that end, she offers Tarlow (Josh Brolin) a free blow job if he’ll give her a ride. He agrees, but the ride falls through and Krista is left screaming and demanding her cash for the now not-free oral sex, and, to Tarlow’s credit, he does pay up. Krista goes back to the motel and finds a beat-up Rosetta lying on their bed. Krista tries to comfort her, kissing her swollen lips, holding her, but Rosetta seems really out of it. Krista takes matters into her own hands, borrows the motel manager’s motorcycle, and heads off first to avenge Rosetta and then to see her daughter.
She finds the car that belongs to the boyfriend-y john who clocked the hell out of Rosetta and spray paints an apt vulgarity on it, then busts out a window and kicks the side panels. When the dude appears and punches her in the face, she sprays him in the eyes with paint and then stomps his ass, followed by a quick exit on the motorcycle. Krista had been warned that the bike wasn’t too reliable and, sure enough, it breaks down. If people were lines on a vector, this is where Krista would intersect with Carl.
The Dead Girl is rife with symbolism, not the least of which is all the sex without kissing. In fact, the only loving kisses exchanged are between Krista and Rosetta. And even though they are prostitutes, they don’t fall into the lesbian hooker cliché so much as the beat-down-junkies-trying-to-stay-clean cliché. Furthermore, the nudity is symbolic of varying degrees of self-empowerment: Arden posing as the dead girl, Leah gleefully sexually aggressive astride Derek, Ruth stripping herself and burning her clothes. The cinematography is similarly symbolic; there is a wealth of blue hues throughout. The resulting effect is one of almost a watercolor wash, a bit like a haze. Nothing is really sharp and crisp, but is rather dulled. This effect adds to the complex whole of this richly rewarding film.