Empathetic and provocative parts of the sum

The Dead Girl. Rated: MA. Director: Karen Moncrieff. Starring: Toni Collette, Rose Byrne, Mary Beth Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Brittany Murphy. 94 minutes. website

Empathetic and provocative parts of the sumThe success of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s trilogy Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel has illustrated the power of multi-story films, which examine the lives of seemingly unrelated people whose fates become potently, albeit incidentally, connected.

Writer/director Moncrieff’s The Dead Girl utilises that same kind of multi-faceted structure, although the overall impact is less profound than Iñárritu’s films.

That said, her intentions are less lofty. While Iñárritu tends to focus on such grand themes as fate and the global community, Moncrieff seems to be simply interested in people — in particular, women — who are seeking liberation from circumstances that oppress them.

The Dead Girl takes the form of five mini-films, fused by the circumstances surrounding the murder of a young woman. This crime pervades the film like an unpleasant stench, meaning that even the most innocuous moments are grimed with a sense of unease.

Collette is the heroine of the first story, "The Stranger". She’s the one who stumbles upon the dead girl’s body; ironically, the macabre discovery proves to be a catalyst to her escape (of sorts) from her emotionally abusive mother (Piper Laurie).

In "The Sister", Byrne portrays the forensic scientist who examines the girl’s body. Leah believes the body is that of her long-lost sister, whom her parents — particularly her mother (Mary Steenburgen, in a superb performance) — have been obsessed over for 15 years. The apparent discovery offers Leah both the chance to grieve, and to move on.

Empathetic and provocative parts of the sum"The Wife" is arguably the most tragic and affecting of the five stories; the woman in question (Hurt) is the wife of the killer, and the film portrays her in the process of learning her husband’s terrible secret. The knowledge she uncovers provides her with the upper hand, and her first taste of real power, over her neglectful and repressive husband.

In "The Mother", the oppressive force in the life of the mother herself (Harden) is guilt. She is searching for answers to fill in the blanks of her estranged daughter’s final, difficult years of life.

In "The Dead Girl", we are finally privy to the events that led up to the murder that set all the other stories in motion. Compared with the poignant character sketches that preceded it, this final segment seems merely obligatory, with Murphy overacting and Moncrieff providing a compassionate but trite extrapolation of a life that’s utterly down-and-out.

This misstep in the final act hardly diminishes the impact of the rest of the film, which is empathetic and provocative from first to last. What it fails to provide (and the lack of which causes it to fall short of Iñárritu’s films) is a resonant climax or thematic lynchpin.

In short, it prevents The Dead Girl from becoming more than the sum of its parts, so that ultimately it is simply a collection of strong short films, rather than a powerful feature.



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