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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Murder Most Foul
by Betty Jo Tucker

Who killed a certain young woman and what is the victim’s identity? These are the opening hooks of The Dead Girl, a mystery that unfolds in five separate segments. But, after drawing us in, this unusual film shows its true colors and spends the rest of its running time on the tragic lives of various women associated with events relating to the case.

For her second movie -- the first was Blue Car -- Karen Moncrieff focuses her filmmaker’s ultra-serious eye on the following female characters: a woman who discovers the body; a young lady who works on the corpse; the wife of a suspect; the friend and mother of the victim; and the dead girl herself.

Unlike Rashomon, that great Japanese film in which a crime  is recalled differently by a number of witnesses, The Dead Girl uses the victim as a trigger to ignite each part of the movie. First we meet Arden (Toni Collette), a shy spinster who suffers daily humiliation from her demanding invalid mother (Piper Laurie). However, Arden’s bleak existence gets considerably more interesting after she finds a dead body covered with ants. She even becomes daring enough to take up with an aggressive stranger (Giovanni Ribisi), and we can’t help worrying that he might be the killer.

Next, our attention shifts to Leah (Rose Byrne), who works in the morgue and thinks the corpse might be her missing sister. And our heart goes out to this sad, neglected daughter of a mother (Mary Steenburgen) obsessed with finding her long-lost child.

We are then allowed a harrowing glimpse into Ruth’s (Mary Beth Hurt) extremely unhappy marriage to Carl (Nick Searcy), who frequently leaves her alone while he takes mysterious trips. When Ruth finds evidence to implicate her husband in the serial killing of young girls, we wonder what she will do about it and are shocked at how she handles her horrific discovery. 

The fourth segment centers on Melora’s (Marcia Gay Harden) efforts to deal with her devastating guilt over failing to listen to her daughter (Brittany Murphy) and her search for a little granddaughter (Elle Fanning) she didn’t know existed.

Finally, we discover what really happened to “the dead girl” as well as the misery this murder caused her close friend Rosetta (Kerry Washington, wonderful but barely recognizable in this role).

I don’t remember when I’ve seen a movie with as many exceptional female performances as those in The Dead Girl. Harden (who won a Best Supporting Oscar for Pollock) has never been better than she is here as a grieving mother. Talk about tugging at your heart strings! She brought tears to my eyes, and I don’t usually cry in movies. Hurt (Lady in the Water) actually frightened me with the intensity of her emotions, and Collette’s (Little Miss Sunshine) suffering seemed so real it made me cringe. Although a bit too frenetic in her portrayal of a prostitute trying to deliver a birthday present to her daughter, Murphy surprised me in some highly dramatic scenes. (But I still prefer her in comedies like Just Married.)          

Listen to your loved ones and care for them. Is that the important lesson writer/director Moncrieff wants viewers to learn by watching her somber film? If so, mission accomplished.

(Released by First Look Pictures and rated “R” for language, grisly images and sexuality/nudity.)

Listen to Betty Jo's review of The Dead Girl at    

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