Karen Moncrieff’s The Dead Girl is the scrap-bag opposite of a torture-porn movie—or more precisely, a patchwork made up of the material that wannabe snuff flicks elide. Picture the scene, for example, in the recent Turistas where a topless woman is sliced open on an operating table, only to have a mad doctor remove her organs while she watches. The movie’s interest in the character extends no farther than her tits, her guts, and her death.
The Dead Girl begins where the sequence in Turistas ends: with a girl’s mutilated body. The movie then conducts what is essentially an investigation—not into the gory details of the killing, but the grim human questions on the periphery. Did the girl have a mother? A child? If so, what did they do next? As for the killer, might he even have a wife/mother/girl of his own—unaware of that drawer out back in storage, where trophies of a secret life are kept?
It’s easy to overpraise a movie like the showily acted, arty Dead Girl
because it offers an antidote to Turistas‘ zipless bloodletting—just as it’s easy to cop a knee-jerk pose of moral superiority to the torture-porn genre, which can fiddle with our sympathies and taboos in illuminating ways. But Moncrieff’s glum, somber film is something of a needed corrective at the moment, when horror movies are turning into weightless exercises in morally sanctioned sadism. Its multipart, fractured structure reverses the effect of Turistas‘ meathead surgery— The Dead Girl brings a cold slab of exploitation bait back into focus as a human being.
The body’s discovery splits the film into five stories—four afters and a before, each providing its own partially obscured angle on the crime. The first, “The Stranger,” shows the murder’s perversely liberating effect on the mousy caretaker (Toni Collette) who finds the corpse. A missing girl’s photograph passes the narrative focus like a baton to “The Sister,” in which a forensics grad student (Rose Byrne) sees the corpse and thinks she’s found her long-vanished sibling. Then there’s “The Wife” (Mary Beth Hurt), who finds a connection between the dead girl and her lumpen, secretive husband (Nick Searcy) and must decide whether the dismal status quo is more appealing than a lonely future. The search of “The Mother” (Marcia Gay Harden) for her dead daughter’s apartment leads to the final section—in which the girl (Brittany Murphy in wild-child abandon) suddenly appears as flesh and blood on the last day of her life.
Shot by Michael Grady in half-shadows, The Dead Girl isn’t as gimmicky as other films that fit the current vogue for chronologically scrambled, everything-is-connected puzzle movies with bleeding-heart agendas. Moncrieff doesn’t force some overlay of cosmic linkage on the stories—the plot strands that connect the five women are direct and plausible. Neither does the writer-director litter the film with the kind of hammy aha!’s that made Crash and Babel such eye-rollers. More often, images and details rhyme between the stories in mysterious ways.
The chief problem with The Dead Girl, as with most current multipart films, is that the truncated stories don’t give actors much room to develop a part. They’re on-screen for such a short time that they act furiously from the get-go. Collette practically plows through a supermarket with a sign reading “Ask Me About My Misery,” and Piper Laurie, playing her mother, actually cackles. Moncrieff’s confrontational monologues would make great audition pieces, but in the context of a movie that’s exactly how they sound: stagy and overwritten.
And yet Moncrieff, who comes from an acting background, works wonders when she listens closely. The best piece of acting in the whole movie is also the quietest. Having made a horrible discovery that casts her entire married life and future in shadows, Hurt unleashes another desperate, full-throttle tirade about her lousy marriage—to which Searcy, the husband, simply says, “I’m sorry.” It’s not just the contrast between Hurt’s near-hysteria and his eerie, mournful calm, it’s the shading in Searcy’s inflection—a mixture of chilling moral absence and distant regret—that suggests unfathomable inner darkness. In such moments, The Dead Girl is the best kind of psychological puzzle movie: the kind that can’t be solved.