The Reeler


December 29, 2006

The Dead Girl

Joyless L.A. melodrama a host of dreary indie clichés

Roughly as appealing and nuanced as its title, The Dead Girl is one of those dreary indie films where the world exists almost solely in shades of brown and everyone works very hard to convey introversion, mainly by acting catatonic. Karen Moncrieff assembles a cast of underrated B-list actresses and lets them be "serious," a task defined here by choking out every word as if it were the hardest... one... ever; think lots of quiet weeping and copious quivering of the lower chin.

Divided into five related short story-esque segments, The Dead Girl establishes its tone in the first one, "The Stranger." When Arden (Toni Collette) finds Brittany Murphy's corpse in a field, she reports it to the police, then gets on local TV, does some grocery shopping and gets hit on by one of the baggers (Giovanni Ribisi). Back home, Collette prepares for a date, but not before letting us know why she shivers like a leaf every time she is spoken to -- her mother is religious fanatic Piper Laurie, unintentionally reprising her role from Carrie. Observing her daughter's make-up, she laughs: "What did you do to your face? What's that stink? You look like a $2 hooker. You'd have to pay them." Then she throws milk in her face.

It's intended to be painful and raw, I suppose, but The Dead Girl is more like lurid melodrama without any of the fun. Three of the first four segments (which lead up to the dead girl herself, Brittany Murphy, re-redefining white trash) are all concerned with families that are missing children (the fourth features the murderer). Stringing together the lives of overlapping Angelenos, The Dead Girl positions itself as a second-rate Short Cuts, but where Altman took Carver's elliptical tales and made them novelistic, Moncrieff forces an anthology out of amateurish short stories: overstated symbolism, deliberately unresolved endings, and unlikely monologues of metaphorical import delivered by unwitting characters.

And yet The Dead Girl is better than other, like-minded movies; some of its segments actually approach verisimilitude rather than mere forced coincidence. The best segment of the bunch is "The Sister," which features Rose Byrne as a mortuary worker whose family has been searching for her missing sister for 15 years. The weight of constant expectation and barely repressed mourning weighs upon Byrne, and the discovery of Murphy's corpse, which she believes might be that of her sister, the release is instant. When it turns out she was wrong, Byrne's family immediately resumes their wait for an appearance as likely as Godot's. Moncrieff captures the state of constant dread exacerbated by an overbearing family, but it's almost entirely undone by the moment when Byrne's mother (Mary Steenburgen) announces -- while quavering, naturally -- that the long-missing sister couldn't possibly be dead: "If she were dead, don't you think I would know it in my heart?"

Psychological realism and soggy Oprah-isms don’t mesh well, and moments like that pop up all too frequently. And so it's back to square one for a movie whose dour portents can never quite outweigh the suspicion that the lives of most Angelenos are neither consistently miserable nor prone to outbursts of loaded, quasi-literary speech. More convincing is the film's inadvertent assertion that LA is populated by fading stars desperate for one last, scenery-chewing part.

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Comments (1)

Ha this review was amazing, I agree completely. While watching this movie, all I kept thinking was "I'm pretty sure I wrote all these stories in junior high." I'm also glad you were so unforgiving on the actor's parts. I was willing to give the movie a by based on the power of the performances, but you convinced me not to be so nice. I can now say with confidence the movie was shit (although I would not complain about any award Brittany Murphy might get for this).

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