The Dead Girl (review)
Our Sister’s Keeper
A dead girl. Worse: a dead hooker. Worse: a dead junkie hooker. The kind of dead girl no one gives a second thought to — we skim the brief mention about the discovery of her body in the newspaper, maybe, or she, as an anonymous corpse, gets half a minute on the evening news. Her killer will get far more attention, if he’s ever even caught.
Yet, who she is and how she came to be mutilated and naked and dead in an empty field says more about us than her murderer does. Serial killers are an aberration, an oddity, but alas, the only thing that distinguishes this drug-addicted prostitute from the many others like her is her death in this particular manner. How does a woman get to this low, and who are the people who care about her even now? And so writer/director Karen Moncrieff, who made 2002’s Blue Car, shows us, in her profound and powerful new film, the intimate connections this one dead girl had in life, and the ripples her death creates through an unexpected range of people.
Okay, let’s be clear: it’s the impact of this death on a range of women that Moncrieff is concerned with, the kind of women whose stories are also typically untold, unheard, ignored. Moncrieff is spectacularly indifferent to the kind of male stories that usually accompany a dead girl — those that revel in the specific methods of the serial killer and in why he does what he does, those that wallow in the agony and determination of the cop chasing him. If you’re looking for a neat-and-tidy wrapup in which handcuffs on snapped on the guilty and all questions are answered, or a cathartic salving of the guilt we all share when someone is lost to a life of culturally sanctioned abuse — of drugs, of the body, of the soul — you won’t find that here. But The Dead Girl is not of the brand of celebratory, go-girl feminism, either: the women here, almost to a one, are, like the dead girl, mired in miseries as much of their own making as they are artifacts of a society that pushes women into certain hard corners. No one gets off easy here — this is not an easy film, not a fun film, not a film that leaves you feeling much of anything but despair. Just so you know.
Moncrieff has structured her film as a series of shorts that would stand alone, if not for the fact that together, they reinforce one another and build connections between themselves and become much more potent seen as a whole. It starts with the discovery of the dead girl’s body by a lonely woman (Toni Collette: Tsunami: The Aftermath, Little Miss Sunshine) for whom this shocking event prompts her to make a change in her life — she has been under the thumb of her psychologically abusive mother (Piper Laurie: Eulogy, Possessed, in a terrifying performance), but a startling meeting with a local man (Giovanni Ribisi: Flight of the Phoenix, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) offers the opportunity for escape. There is something deep-down disturbing in their budding relationship — “I’m not gonna hurt you,” he tells her; “Thank you,” she replies — that sets the stage for everything that will come, even though their link to the dead girl is the most tenuous of all. Separately and together, these two people embody an unhealthy give and take between men and women that will underlie the rest of the film and create an undercurrent of sheer unknowableness: that people are passing strange, and that no matter how closely we look and listen, we’ll never really understand anyone else.
And from there we have peeks into the lives of the prostitute friend (Kerry Washington: The Last King of Scotland, Fantastic Four) with which the dead girl lived; the dead girl’s mother (Marcia Gay Harden: American Dreamz, American Gun); the wife (Mary Beth Hurt: Lady in the Water, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) of the killer; a young woman (Rose Byrne: Casanova, Wicker Park) who believes the dead girl may be her sister, who’s been missing for years; and, rewinding a bit to show us the immediate lead-up to her murder, the dead girl herself (Brittany Murphy: Happy Feet, Sin City). None of these little tales goes quite where you expect it will, which would make it riveting enough, but every single performance is a wonder of surprising emotion, as if these women have been compacting and tamping down their feelings for years and are now finally finding the ability to express it. Which is, in fact, the case: tragedy has given them voice and motive to examine their own lives, and either find them, sadly, fine and fitting as constrained and haunted as they are, or reason to make a change.
And Moncrieff does make the dead girl tragic, not in the sense that the word is bandied about without real appreciation for its meaning, but in a genuine, grounded way that lends true sorrow to the violent death of a junkie hooker, and true meaning to her life.