Barely released and seen by no one, Karen Moncrieff’s The Dead Girl is a spare, wholly depressing collection of interlocking stories, all of which center around the sad, pathetic life of Krista (Brittany Murphy), the young woman of the title who is found dead at the film’s opening. The theme of connectedness is, by this late date, trite and overused (and likely buried for good after the Crash debacle), but this time around, it’s less about a sense of togetherness than the surrender of hope. These people are linked not because they help each other, or put things in perspective, or offer convenient life lessons about shared responsibility, but only so that we might see how many lives this little stink of a girl helped ruin along the way to her untimely, but entirely expected death. As Krista is a whore, a drug addict, a runaway, and a shitty mother to boot, she’s refreshingly unsympathetic, as we know her death came not as she was on the heels of redemption, but simply as cruel happenstance that could have easily been something else at some other time. Yes, she’s brutally murdered, but given her habits, an overdose or back alley beating could have been just around the corner. I’m not even sure there’s a larger message to be had, thank fuck. Instead, this is simply a somber tale about an abused woman who suffered, failed again and again, and died. She’s the kind of girl who left a trail of sorrow behind, but also one who will be stripped, prepped, buried, and easily forgotten. She’s quite literally “the dead girl” – nameless, anonymous, and hopelessly irrelevant.
The first story, “The Stranger,” involves the painfully meek Arden (Toni Collette), a cruelly browbeaten woman who lives with her tyrannical mother (Piper Laurie) and, as the movie opens, happens to come across Krista’s body. The discovery brings some unwanted attention by the media, as well as the wrath of her mother, who appears to be the type who would unleash a 20-minute monologue for having her bathwater too cold. Arden’s sudden brush with fame (or what passes for it in her world) leads to a date with Rudy (Giovanni Ribisi), a dimwitted cretin who appears to be interested because Arden just might be an easy lay. At the very least, the body’s discovery seems to bring Arden somewhat to life, as she does her hair and puts on makeup for what must be the first time in years. Her mother is appalled, all but says she wishes Arden had died instead of her brother, and eventually drives Arden to an explosion of her own. It is here, in the first but most tangentially related segment, where a pattern begins: the establishment of sexual dysfunction as the root of all evil. Perhaps that’s overstating the case a bit, but there isn’t a moment of healthy sexual contact to be had in the whole of the movie, and Arden is so deranged that she seems to think being tied up by a relative stranger — even raped, if the occasion calls for it — is normal, if not expected. Here is a woman who never escaped the shadow of a domineering parent, which stifled any and all social skills, including normal sexual urges and exploration.
Next up is “The Sister,” which focuses on Leah (Rose Byrne), a depressed medical student who, while performing an autopsy, comes across the dead girl and believes it to be her sister, who had been abducted 15 years before. Thankfully, it is not the same girl (such a coincidence would have been too silly to believe), but she wants it to be so, if only finally to put the matter to bed and get her mom back, who has been rigidly obsessed with locating her daughter. While under the impression that the body is her sister’s, she is able to escape her own fog, finally accepting a young man’s party invitation and even enjoying a round of sex. But with the revelation that the dental records do not match, she is sent back into her morose state, which will likely continue until the actual body is found. Once again, we have a female character who has no real relationship with her mother (it’s likely that in her maniacal focus on getting her daughter back, mom retained little emotional connection with everyone else who remained in the house), and as such is rudderless regarding interpersonal relations.
Third, “The Wife,” brings us the man who will eventually take Krista’s life, but his story is secondary to that of Ruth (Mary Beth Hurt), his frantic wife who can’t understand why he’s constantly leaving for hours at a time. One day, she finds some suspicious garments in a chest of drawers that sits in a storage unit the couple owns. She eventually discovers a driver’s license that happens to belong to one of the women recently found murdered in the area. She’s horrified, of course, but does little but use the information to taunt her husband, never actually pushing it to the level of full-tilt accusation. One would think that this knowledge would be enough to send Ruth to the cops or another state altogether, but she hesitates and changes her mind, as we quickly deduce that this is the sort of woman who wouldn’t know what to do without her unhappy circumstances. At least it’s predictable, she might argue. Finally, she collects all of the garments and sets them aflame, saving her own attire for last. Walking away completely nude, we can’t imagine she’ll return to her husband, but why else would she enable his crimes? And given that she’s tolerated her husband’s constant whoring for years, why care now simply because he’s killing them?
From there, we move to “The Mother,” which tells the story of Melora (Marcia Gay Harden), the dead girl’s estranged mother. She arrives in L.A. from the state of Washington to identify and “collect” her daughter, who left after having endured sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather. The “abuse leads to prostitution” line is a bit tired, but despite my hopes that women could enter the sex trade for orgasmic and altruistic reasons, it is an unavoidable reality that such women are almost always damaged goods. Alas, it’s a failure of our species that good girls from stable homes don’t leave the nest and start chugging cock for a living. Melora also discovers that her daughter has a child of her own, which she is now, by guilt alone, obligated to raise. Melora spends much of her time with her daughter’s roommate, Rosetta (Kerry Washington), a fellow junkie and whore who, when not sleeping away her days, spends most waking hours getting beaten to a pulp. It’s a tramp’s life, and no heart of gold lies behind this bruised chest. She’s about money, and the fix, and trusting men who let her down, so spare her the lectures about getting back on her feet. Melora offers, of course, but Rosetta knows better. A fresh start is pure fantasy; she’ll stay put and likely end up just like her friend. It’s simply a matter of time.
Rounding out the film is “The Dead Girl,” which shows us the final hours of the young woman in question. While she’s hopelessly lost, there is a measure of charm to her personality, best reflected by the scene where she pushes a boy to the floor after he insults his sister. She even offers to help him up and further injures him by scratching his hand. At once, she’s defending a girl who was like her at one point (before the true horror began), while staking a claim for all those who have wanted to watch a kid take a fall just for being a dick. Or maybe because the action immediately reminded me of my wife, a woman who is not above shoving a youngster out of the way when he or she gets a little too obnoxious. For good measure, Krista flips the boy off as he leaves the store. Ahh, memories. And so, Krista is desperate to get to Norwalk to visit her daughter and present her with a present on her birthday. She has to “visit,” of course, because she lost her child to a mean-old state agency that unfairly assumed that a diseased junkie whore couldn’t adequately care for her little one. I’m not sure how shipping her off to an overwhelmed Mexican woman in a bad neighborhood is an improvement, but at least the caregiver didn’t have a needle in her arm or a john in her ass. The birthday visit also requires a ride, which is apparently solved when the butch dyke motel manager lends her a motorbike. But when the vehicle conks out on the freeway, necessitating a hitchhike, Ruth’s husband pulls up, all too happy to provide a solution.
Sure, there’s a familiarity to the surroundings, but it’s comfortable rather than shopworn. There are no happy endings, and the lives as we leave them are defined by their anxiety, not the possibility of bright tomorrows. And while the thread of unhealthy sex runs through from start to finish, it’s not so much a prudish finger-wagging as a simple observation; clean, dispassionate, and matter-of-fact. I tend to agree with Woody Allen that no orgasm could ever be a “wrong” one, but girls such as Krista do in fact end up dead when that very release becomes synonymous with power and control. Still, any agenda is entirely fabricated, as there’s no ax to grind with these characters. As with her previous film, Blue Car, Moncrieff presents the difficulties of sex without any of the usual judgments, content with the knowledge that the very thing that keeps the species alive is often the thing that stops the process cold. And that parents kill our spirit, and withhold their love, and pay attention only when it’s too late. Wives nag, husbands kill, and hookers hitch a ride once too often and end up food for worms. It’s how things are, and it need not mean any more than that.