THE DEAD GIRL
The promotional campaign for The Dead Girl tried to pitch it as an inspirational drama One life ends. Seven others begin. This may well have been from a lack of knowing how to pitch the film than anything else, as the often bleak mood is far removed from any kind of womens self-discovery drama. One has the slightly glib temptation to call The Dead Girl a Chick Flick serial killer film rather than standard serial killer thrillers where the emphasis is on the investigation and delving into the killers behavioural patterns, The Dead Girl focuses on the women affected by the serial killers actions. Although you would e hard-pressed to pigeonhole The Dead Girl as anything that resembles a genre thriller. Karen Moncrieffs tempo is very different from a Hollywood film the film is all slow, moody closeups, accompanied by bluesy slide guitar. The film is told as a mandala of overlapping stories a la the likes of Pulp Fiction (1994), Magnolia (1999), Crash (2005), Babel (2006) and the works of Robert Altman. Here Moncrieff tells the stories of five different women, ranging from the person who discovers the body to the mother of the victim, the pathologist who examines the body, the killers wife and the victim herself in the final segment.
As with any anthology, the episodes vary in quality. The first segment The Stranger opens the show with a perverse kick. We are introduced to shy withdraw Toni Collette and her embittered and shrewish mother Piper Laurie. From the moment that Giovanni Ribisi enters the scene and asks Toni Collette out, the episode takes on a decidedly ambiguous tone. As they head off on the date and he displays an uncommon fascination with the case and starts reciting facts about serial killers, we begin to get an uneasy feeling that leaves us uncertain whether he might be the killer. And then comes the moment when they are making out where she proves reluctant to kiss him and he jokes Dont have to tie you up, do I? and she demurely invites Maybe. And then a couple of moments later we see him binding her hands with a leather belt and she shaking her head as it would be too easy to get out of, followed by he trying to fuck her while bound up in the car and she expressing disappointment that he hasnt tried to rape her. This opens the film with a charged perversity an episode where you genuinely do not know where things are going from one moment to the next or indeed who is in control or the more unbalanced. The only disappointment one that could be said of most of the episodes is that Karen Moncrieff either fails to give the story enough time for the telling or, as with this episode, the resolution is weak and the story feels like it needs another act to tell it satisfyingly.
The second episode, The Sister, has promise in its story of Rose Byrnes clinically depressed coroners assistant believing the dead girl is her own sister and trying to stand up against her family to tell them that they should accept that their missing daughter is not coming back. Despite building some good character tensions, Moncrieff fails to let the episode go anywhere and this is the weakest of the stories.
The third episode, The Wife, works marvellously. An unrecognisable Mary Beth Hurt gives a performance filled with considerable anger and fear as a neglected middle-aged wife. The episode is reminiscent of the British film The Hawk (1993), which featured Helen Mirren as a wife who suspects that her husband might be a serial killer but Moncrieff makes her segment work far better than The Hawk did in the whole of its running time. This is the nearest that The Dead Girl could be said to resemble a classic thriller.
The fourth episode, The Mother, works well as a story of two people from the opposite sides of the fence Marcia Gay Hardens white middle-class mother and Kerry Washingtons abused Black street hooker as they come to unite and trust one another across the social divide. This is probably the most upbeat of the stories. The final episode, The Dead Girl, tells the story of the victim Brittany Murphy and winds elements from all of the foregoing segments together in its telling of the last few hours leading up to her murder. The film merely fades to black after she gets into Nick Searcys car, leaving what happens then a tragically unspoken silence. Moncrieffs laying You Are My Sunshine over the end credits immediately after this comes with bleak effect.
One of the amazing things that Karen Moncrieff has managed is the assemblage of an impressive cast that ranges from industry veterans and awards winners Piper Laurie, Mary Beth Hurt, Toni Collette, Marcia Gay Harden to new faces on the rise Kerry Washington, Rose Byrne, Brittany Murphy, as well as fine support on the male side from Giovanni Ribisi. It is hard to single out who among these gives the best performance. Probably the edge goes to Mary Beth Hurt playing a frightened middle-aged woman having to deal with harsh revelations. It is equally good to see Piper Laurie, one of the great and underrated actresses of the 1970s, back as Toni Collettes aging and venomous mother and showing that she has lost none of the fieriness that marked her best performances.
Subsequently, Karen Moncrieff went onto direct the legal drama The Trials of Cate McCall (2013), the Virgina C. Andrews adapted tv movie Petals on the Wind (2014) and the ghost story The Keeping Hours (2017).
(Winner for Best Supporting Actress (Mary Beth Hurt), Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Piper Laurie) at this sites Best of 2006 Awards).