A drama about the bleak life of a murdered prostitute, and the women surrounding her.
The Dead Girl is director Karen Moncrieff’s follow-up to her first feature film, Blue Car, which garnered some success on the independent film circuit. The Dead Girl is another indie, a small piece of five interrelated stories all centering around a young prostitute named Krista (played by Brittany Murphy) who is, as the title indicates, found dead. It also features an impressive ensemble cast made up of Toni Collette, Marcia Gay Harden, Rose Byrne, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Giovanni Ribisi, Kerry Washington, Mary Steenburgen, Mary Beth Hurt, and Piper Laurie.
Each story focuses on a main female character in terms of her relationship to Krista and her death. There is “The Stranger,” in which the hermit-like Arden (Toni Collette) finds Krista’s body, which somehow becomes the impetus for her to finally step out of her lonely existence. In “The Sister,” Rose Byrne (Troy, Wicker Park) plays a forensics grad student who may finally be able to put doubts about her missing sister to rest when she recognizes a birthmark on Krista’s body as she examines her. “The Wife,” lead by Mary Beth Hurt (The World According to Garp, Lady in the Water) , tells the story of Ruth, an frumpy, angry woman who has to face her suspicions about her husband's relationship to Krista. In “The Mother,” Krista’s mother Melora (Marcia Gay Harden) learns the truth about her estranged daughter’s life, and develops an unusual relationship with Krista’s friend, another prostitute named Rosetta (Kerry Washington). And finally, “The Dead Girl” gives insight into the emotionally volatile woman at the core of the movie.
Moncrieff said she was inspired to write this story after sitting on the jury for the murder of a young prostitute a few years back. And indeed, The Dead Girl explores the depths of both what life might be like for a woman like the one Moncrieff learned about during the trial, and how her life and death would web out to impact those around her.
The tone is fittingly dark, the writing impressively poetic, and the performances excellent absolutely across the board. Piper Laurie (Children of a Lesser God, The Hustler) is positively virulent as Arden’s emotionally abusive shut-in mother in “The Stranger,” and Rose Byrne is heartbreaking as a young woman whose life has been stunted by her family’s obsession with the sister who went missing during their childhood. But most surprising was the usually underused Mary Beth Hurt who turns in a fearless, powerhouse performance in “The Wife.”
While I liked The Dead Girl and thought on the whole it was well done, there just seemed to be something missing for me. It’s like each character represents a different face of misery, which is an interesting concept. But then what? At the end, you may know a lot more about Krista than you did when you started, and you see how she changed these people’s lives, but that’s it. Despite the intense emotions explored in the vignettes, without any overarching message or takeaway, I walked out of the theater feeling as dead inside as Krista’s corpse.