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January 18, 2007 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | January 18, 2007 |

Writer/director Karen Moncrieff’s The Dead Girl is good at many things. Its use of textured light instead of dialogue to convey mood is beautiful; the intricacies of the script never condescend to the viewer; the camera isn’t afraid to simply let a scene unspool at its own pace. Unfortunately, these hallmarks of competent drama aren’t enough to make up for the film’s biggest flaw: its almost total lack of feeling. Or rather, the confusion of genuine sorrow with the thick, unsensing despair that Moncrieff ladles over every scene. The Dead Girl comprises five vignettes revolving around the titular murdered character, with each successive story providing additional subtle clues to the mystery of how the girl died. This is heavy stuff, and it sounds like it would be genuinely moving instead of turgid and forced. But Moncrieff’s constant sadness has no counterpoint, no compassion or spark of life that would do anything to illuminate the story and turn it from a depressing story about a dead hooker into the elegy for a wayward soul that Moncrieff wants the film to be.

The film starts with Arden (Toni Collette), a quiet woman who looks as if she’s had the joy slowly beaten out of her by life. She barely speaks, and when she does it’s barely above a whisper. Arden lives with her mother and cares for the older woman, bathing her and helping her get around the house. Arden finds the dead girl in an empty stretch of property behind her house, setting an investigation in motion and gaining local notoriety as the woman who discovered the corpse. She’s recognized and picked up at the grocery store by Rudy (Giovanni Ribisi), a deeply unsettled bagboy who enjoys talking about serial killers. But it’s too soon for Moncrieff to introduce the killer — not even she is that clumsy — so instead of Arden having an awkward date with and narrow escape from Rudy, things take a sicker turn: Arden, too scared to kiss Rudy when they’re parked in his car, nonetheless pulls off his belt and prompts him to bind her hands before going any further. All of Moncrieff’s women here function under delusions of their own identity and as hollow objects of what they perceive to be male fantasy; Arden shrugs it off when Rudy asks incredulously, “What are you doing? Do you want me to rape you?” But even he’s not that weird, so they settle for regular old unshackled intercourse. It’s all very well filmed and eerie and completely uninvolving. Moncrieff’s error here isn’t in making Arden a dead-eyed masochist but in refusing to give her personality the grounding required to make her decisions seem like relevant extensions of her beliefs instead of just mindless wandering through sexual nightmares.

Things don’t get much better with the next arc, which follows Leah (Rose Byrne), a forensics student who believes the recovered corpse is that of her long-lost sister. Leah spends most of her time drinking, crying, and having emotionless sex with coworkers. She’s in the act of lovemaking, grinding away, when the man below her literally says, “Hey,” just to get her attention and hope to draw her into the moment. Moncrieff’s heroines, if they could be called that, refuse to let themselves be dominated by men, which is all well and good, but they also refuse to take responsibility for themselves: Arden’s bored S&M leanings, Leah’s unwillingness to open her eyes and look at the other body in her bed. It’s one thing to be strong, but Moncrieff’s characters are just hollow.

The rest of the mini-arcs in The Dead Girl follow a similar pattern of sexual un-intimacy and sad happenings that are boringly inevitable. Arden was the Stranger, and Leah was the Sister. There’s also the Wife, Ruth (Mary Beth Hurt), who suspects her husband of the murder; the Mother, Melora (Marcia Gay Harden), who travels to Los Angeles and discovers the truth about her daughter’s life; and the Dead Girl herself, Krista (Brittany Murphy), a streetwalker with a three-year-old daughter. None of the individual stories connect with each other except for the shared character of the dead girl, and Moncrieff deserves points for using a fresh narrative perspective to unfold her story.

The killer’s identity is eventually revealed with almost casual subtlety, because this isn’t so much a mystery as a pensive, overwrought drama about a murder; it’s not unlike a “Law & Order” episode, in that the corpse and the killer both stand out like sore thumbs. Lacking any kind of legitimate suspense, Moncrieff tries to skate by on technical skill and pretensions to greatness, and while the gloomy aesthetics are at least consistent, the forced somber tone that pervades the story ultimately renders it lifeless. The esteemed cast is nothing to scoff at — Harden, Collette, Mary Steenburgen — but the film is unremittingly cold as it drags these women through dire situations with no hope of relief in sight. That utter lack of purpose, that suffering with no balance of redemption, keeps the story out of reach of the viewer. Moncrieff holds all real emotion at arm’s length, and as a result, what could have been a refreshing, female take on a genre story becomes a thoroughly misogynistic film. The women here are tortured, and we never know why. If Moncrieff does, she’s not telling.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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The Dead Girl / Daniel Carlson

Film | January 18, 2007 |

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