Friday, December 29, 2006

The Dead Girl - Movie Review

The Dead Girl 2006

This is the story of seven strangers. No, not that tired story. This one concerns seven strangers who contemplate their place in life after a young woman has been found, well dead. (See the title of the flick. You get it?) We are giving nothing away by telling you that the dead girl in question is portrayed by Brittany Murphy. A role she was born to play in our estimation. She should appear as a corpse more often. Moving on.

The film is told through a series of vignettes that briefly take a jaundiced look at the lives of these women who are all somehow affected by the grisly discovery of a mutilated corpse in a barren landscape. Writer / Director Karen Moncrieff should be commended for her fine casting, a who’s who of talented actresses and actors that work very hard in trying to pull off the near impossible. Fine characterizations under the tiresome burden of a veneer thin scenario with limited time allotted to each individuals story. The acting is fine throughout, the final film, not so much. It lies there, well like a mutilated corpse in a field.

Oscar nominees Toni Collette and Piper Laurie get the ball rolling downhill with their portrayals of a downtrodden woman and her withering housebound mother whose property is unfortunately the crime scene. Toni Collette has long been a favorite of ours, and here she works overtime attempting to elicit sympathy from a most unsympathetic caricature of a spinsterish weirdo who is physically and emotionally trapped in the house with her old cunt of a mother whose psychological torture of her daughter far outshines her physical need for a caregiver.

Three time Oscar nominee Piper Laurie is an excellent actress, long unheralded by Hollywood whose voice can still blast a clarion call of pain and anguish. As the bedridden harridan, she is a brilliant monster who manages to combine Baby Jane and Blanche Hudson into one. Anger, resentment and delusion fill this woman’s final days and all are directed towards her slumped offspring. (Note: This photo is not current. Just in case you were wondering.)

Toni Collette is a marvel as the victimized daughter whose newfound celebrity as the discoverer of the dead girl begins to shine a new light into her defeated existence. She makes us care for a woman who is beyond caring. And by that, we mean her complete inability to apply makeup.

Unfortunately, the screenplay attempts too many red herrings and false endings from the very get go. She soon meets a menacing grocery store clerk who seems too infatuated and far too knowledgeable about the details of grisly crimes for his own good. As played by the deliciously talented Giovanni Ribisi, who has fast become the go-to-guy for portraying creepy white trash, we are obviously meant to assume the worst by his excessive interest in this troubled plane Jane.

Rose Byrne portrays Leah, a young medical examiner whose personal life is trapped under the horrible memory of her sister’s disappearance years ago.
As her mother, Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen makes every second of her screen time count as a woman who has dedicated her life to maintaining the hope of finding her missing child and honoring her memory to the point of obliterating her own marriage and relationship with her surviving daughter. Oscar nominee Bruce Davison sadly has very little screen time as the stalwart father in this grief stricken trio.

As the humpy young co-worker, our future husband James Franco delivers a nicely played hand as the most unconceivable character – a sexy nerd. While earlier this year he was the living embodiment of the archetypal hero in Tristan & Isolde”, here he downplays his mighty pecs, doffs a pair of geek glasses and loud print shirt and dials up the charms of a young man who is smitten with his co-workers delicate beauty and wounded heart. Their scene of playful courting was one of the nice surprises in this dreary film. Sadly, the storyline of Rose and her family is also the most difficult one to believe in. For Rose becomes convinced that this dead girl is her long lost sister, based solely on her desires to end her families’ nightmare. Unfortunately, the audience is hopefully too smart to accept that mighty leap into incredulity and our distance from the material makes us not care.

Worse for the moviegoer, the next vignette features Mary Beth Hurt acting her little heart out in the breaking point of the film. For halfway through the movie, we begin to understand exactly what happened to the dead girl and more importantly who the killer is. Not that this is a murder mystery per se, it just seemed to us to be too much information far too quickly. We’re not sure if we should care for the dead girl in question, the other characters that drift in and out of the story or anybody in particular. Certainly it is difficult to care for Mary Beth Hurt’s character, a strident woman who loathes her failed marriage and berates her husband endlessly. Not that he is any charmer either. Together they run a storage facility that harbors a few nasty secrets of its own. We did admire how Mary Beth Hurt managed to deliver the goods in her soul and body baring role.

Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden and up-and-comer Kerry Washington portray the dead girl’s mother and best friend. The mother is a woman of such fragile sensibility, that of course she is paired with the best friend that’s a crack whore. Literally. And here is where we completely lost patience with the film. We understand that it might have been attempting to say something about how all of our lives are secretly connected, blah, blah, blah.

But when you resort to putting a prim and proper matron with a crack whore – the subtlety is thrown out the window. This is the least interesting scene for the forced set up alone. And of course we know where this is going. The sinner forgives the sinned, or the reverse . . . depends on your mood, or if you're still awake.

To the dead girl herself. As the film draws to its protracted conclusion, we follow Brittany Murphy to her grave. Which was perfectly fine with us. For once, since her fatty days in Clueless”, she was more than tolerable. As the near wasted shell of a human being that longs to connect with her child in time for her birthday, the kohl eyed slutbag turns out to be a quite nice fit for Miss Murphy’s cold water talents.

Would that the script she finally chose not to embarrass herself in were a bit better. “The Dead Girl” is filled with such talented actors, many of which deliver some very effective work that it seems a true waste to not have developed better roles for them. We sincerely appreciated the attempt, and found the direction from Miss Moncrieff to be a notch above her other cohorts in the indie circuit. At least she could appreciate the look of the film. We loved the opening scene with its washed out landscape and gritty evocation of squalor, but if the directors intention was to reveal emotional truths to the various characters by their tenuous connection to the gruesome crime it didn’t really work for us. Still, we appreciated getting the chance to see some fine actresses strut their stuff. Bless you all!

Written & Directed by Karen Moncrieff

Toni Collette as Arden
Brittany Murphy as Krista
Marcia Gay Harden as Melora
Rose Byrne as Leah
James Franco as Derek
Josh Brolin as Tarlow
Giovannni Ribisi as Rudy
Kerry Washington as Rosetta
Mary Steenburgen as Beverley
Bruce Davison as Bill
Mary Beth Hurt as Ruth
Piper Laurie as Arden’s Mother
Nick Searcy as Carl

Cinematography by Michael Grady
Film Editing by Toby Yates
Original Music by Adam Gorgoni
Costume Design by Susie DeSanto
Production Design by Kristan Andrews
Set Decoration by Bryan Venegas



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