A dead girl, and what she meant to many

Posted: March 23, 2007

In the first chapter of Karen Moncrieff's five-episode film The Dead Girl, a young woman strolling in a field encounters the corpse of a bloodied blonde.

Like her counterparts in subsequent chapters, seemingly tangential figures each connected to the corpse in some way and profoundly affected by it, the woman has an out-of-body experience. Death, in its stark finality, redefines and renews her life.

A challenging film populated with characters who are depressed, on antidepressants, or strung out on mood-altering drugs, The Dead Girl is a downer with resonance. You know how the psychological elements in movies about serial killers are never shown because they would detract from the spectacle of the story? The physical and emotional repercussions of a serial killer's crimes are the pith and marrow of The Dead Girl's narrative. It would be a compelling companion piece to Zodiac.

The Dead Girl's episodic structure and theme of every-life-touches-yours put it in the company of Crash and Babel. But where in those films the villains are intolerance and insensitivity, in The Dead Girl, the villains are almost without exception men and moms, the men who abuse women and the women who enable the abuse - or thrive on it.

(Blue Car, Moncrieff's feature debut about an emotionally vulnerable high schooler seduced by her English teacher while her working mother was too busy to see what was going on, had similar villains.)

From Toni Collette, as the meek caretaker of an abusive, housebound mother in the first chapter to Marcia Gay Harden, the grieving parent of the title figure in the last, the performances are of the lump-in-your-throat, ache-in-your-heart variety.

Moncrieff's sympathies are with the abused women and against the abusers and their enablers.

Shot to evoke the shadowlands rather than the sunny climes of Los Angeles, The Dead Girl is not an easy movie to watch. At times, I felt like I was riding a wave of razor blades, so cutting was the general atmosphere.

Rather than dividing her characters between good and evil, Moncrieff divides them between realists who can accept things as they are and fantasists who fester in their delusions and anger. It's a bitter pill, but the deeply felt performances from Collette, Harden and Kerry Washington make it worth swallowing.

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.

Produced by Eric Karten, Tom Rosenberg, Kevin Turen and Henry Winterstern, written and directed by Karen Moncrieff, photography by Michael Grady, music by Adam Gorgoni, distributed by First Look Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 25 mins.

Arden. . . Toni Collette

Arden's Mother. . . Piper Laurie

Leah. . . Rose Byrne

Rudy. . . Giovanni Ribisi

Ruth. . . Mary Beth Hurt

Melora ................ Marcia Gay Harden

Rosetta....................Kerry Washington Parent's guide: R (profanity, grisly images, sexuality, nudity)

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse

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