Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Dead Girl - Intricate web of Pain

What could have been just another ordinary story about serial killings, instead turns into an experience deep, profound and ultimately very sad in writer-director Karen Moncrieff's 'The Dead Girl'. That is not a turnoff. But to be fair, this is not a movie for the thrill seeker, possibly misguided by the genre the movie falls under. Nor is it for the viewer seeking a pleasant, fun evening at the movies or on their DVD players. This movie takes you on a journey into the lives of people touched by the discovery of the rotting dead body of a girl in the fields of outskirt Los Angeles. It features five vignettes starting with Arden's (Toni Collette) discovery of the body behind her house. The spinsterly caretaker of an abusive invalid mother (Piper Laurie), Arden's life has stopped ticking in a while till this incident brings her to the forefront and attracts the attention of a creepy grocery clark (Giovanni Ribisi), who wants to date her. Arden must make a choice if she wants her life to start, out of the shadows of a cruel mother.

From Arden, we get transported into a forensic graduate student Leah's (Rose Byrne) world. For fifteen years, her family's life has been at a standstill since her sister had gone missing. Her parents never gave up looking. Leah is clinically depressed seeking closure which comes in the form of the dead girl on her examination table. Certain evidences lead her to believe it is the body of her missing sister. She gears up the courage to seek life again with a fellow student (James Franco) only to have it put to a rude stop.

After this peek, we are taken into the lives of a middle aged married couple where the husband (Nick Searcy) remains absent for long intervals, earning the wrath and suspicion of his neglected venom spewing wife (Mary Beth Hurt). When murder is indicated, she must decide on the course of action, whether to turn the evidence in or be the good, protective wife.

Next we meet the mother of the rotting body, who comes from Washington to claim her dead daughter. Here a glimpse into the corpse's life lived is finally provided. Marcia Gay Harden has come to seek answers of the life and violent death of a daughter who had run away from home at the age of sixteen. What she gets from her daughter's roommate and a fellow drug addict and prostitute Rosetta (Kerry Washington) almost shatters her cocooned world and oddly provides her an anchor to maybe put things right this time.

And now its time to meet the dead girl herself. In this final segment we view the last day in the life of a hardened, foul mouthed drug addicted prostitute ( Brittany Murphy) who wants to hitch a ride from one of her johns (Josh Brolin) to keep an important appointment. What she gets instead is a date with destiny.

It is hard to come out of the world Moncrieff creates for us unshaken. The world we have seen is not beautiful, the characters that inhabited it are probably not going to live out rosy lives, these miserable, haunted souls. There is so much never ending pain and ugliness that the visual of the rotting body at the onset of the film serves only as a preview. However, these are real people, not cardboard characters dressed up for our entertainment and thrill. The movie scores here and how. I cared for their miserable lives, shared their pain and hoped things turn out well for them on the departure of an almost voyeuristic glimpse into their worlds.

The performances are pitch perfect, with the names of solid actors sprinkled liberally through the 93 minutes of its runtime. Toni Collette and Giovanni Ribisi  are some of my personal favorites, who I always long to see more on screen for the sheer strength of their acts. But favorites aside, every performer sank their teeth and lived their characters' complex lives. A brilliant ensemble piece.

I repeat, movies on serial killings are dime a dozen. But taking a serial killing and completely humanizing the characters surrounded by it's ugliness is rare. This movie will take you by the gut and not let go. However, there is a certain beauty derived from reality, no matter how harsh, in how much pain it is steeped. It is cathartic. And when I saw the final sequence knowing the fate of that miserable girl, a tear came into my eye and I saluted the director who knew just how far to go and where to leave off this tiny gem of a movie, which has been criminally deprived of the vast audienceship it richly deserves. Go watch this one!

Originally released in 2006
Available on DVD


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