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The Dead Girl (January 4/07)

The Dead Girl marks filmmaker Karen Moncrieff's follow-up to her searing 2002 debut, Blue Car, and there's little doubt that the movie cements her status as one of the most promising new filmmakers to come around in ages. And although The Dead Girl isn't quite as consistent as its predecessor - a feeling that stems from the structure employed by Moncrieff, which features five separate yet interconnected stories - there's certainly no denying the film's overall emotional intensity.

Brittany Murphy stars as the title character, and the movie explores the impact of her death on a series of disparate figures - including Arden (Toni Collette), a meek woman who becomes empowered after discovering the body; Leah (Rose Byrne), a forensics student convinced that the corpse is actually that of her missing sister; Melora (Marcia Gay Harden), the dead girl's grieving mother; and Ruth (Mary Beth Hurt), a frustrated housewife whose husband (Nick Searcy) may not be quite as docile as he appears.

Much like the films of Rodrigo Garcia, The Dead Girl boasts some seriously impressive female performances - with Byrne and Harden particularly effective in their respective roles. There is, however, no overlooking the feeling that some of these segments are more engaging than others, with Collette's overwrought subplot easily the weakest in the bunch (that Piper Laurie essentially reprises her shrill Carrie role during this portion of the movie doesn't help matters). Likewise, Hurt's storyline plays out in a manner best described as predictable - although, admittedly, the actress does a phenomenal job with an exceedingly challenging character.

The other three tales, on the other hand, are as absorbing and wrenching as one might've expected, and - as each segment runs about 20 minutes - it's certainly not difficult to envision any one of these stories stretched out to feature length (this is especially true of the stretch revolving around Byrne's character). Moncrieff's unflinching directorial style is reflected in Adam Gorgoni's moody score and Michael Grady's jittery cinematography, while each of the film's actors manages to successfully step into the shoes of characters that are undeniably complex.

The Dead Girl's sporadically powerful vibe - coupled with several Oscar-worthy performances (Byrne's delivery of a heartbreaking monologue would've certainly guaranteed her an statuette, were this a film of a higher profile) - ensures its place as a genuinely moving and compelling piece of work, and it's now virtually impossible not to expect great things from Moncrieff's future endeavors.

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