According to writer-director Karen Montcrieff’s meticulous nightmare The Dead Girl, women’s plight hasn’t advanced much since the rape-’em-all, kill-’em-all, subjugate-’em-all biblical era. It’s a ghastly stance—and one I’d argue with—but Montcrieff’s response would be to tell me to turn my TV set to the evening news. There, not only is it a nightly parade of kidnapees and corpses, but Montcrieff also worries that these women have been stripped of their identities and reduced to nameless victims. Hence the title of her five-part film, which kicks off with the body of yet another unknown girl (Brittany Murphy) and moves through five distinct segments showing how a single act of violence affects five women.
Arden (Toni Collette) finds Murphy’s corpse in the bleachy tumbleweed field behind her house, during a stroll to escape her invalid mother’s continual harping. Arden is who Stephen King’s Carrie would have grown up to be if she hadn’t discovered her superpowers and unleashed a bloodbath at the prom—right down to Piper Laurie as her hardcore devout and cruel moms. With her lank hair and air of kick-me invisibility, Arden is almost a corpse herself. She sees herself in Murphy’s silent scream, and the mirror is both repulsive and awakening.
Identity is also the key to Montcrieff’s second story, which follows a depressive forensics student (Rose Byrne) whose sister has been missing for 15 years. Morbid Leah has grown up taking second place to a non-entity, as her mother (Mary Steenburgen) is too focused trying to find the daughter she’s lost than pay attention to the daughter she has. Which, to Leah’s surprise, causes her to hope Murphy’s unidentified body is in fact her sister, and the family can move forward. Meanwhile, Ruth (Mary Beth Hurt), the focus of Story Three, is also torn between the miserable predictability of her marriage and her hope that she can finally avenge herself on her loutish husband—who’s erudite in cheating on her with hookers, if not serial killing—by linking him to the crime.
The last two segments take us to the heart of Murphy’s death when she’s finally given a name, Krista, and a history. After her daughter’s body is officially identified, mom Melora (Marcia Gay Harden)—mousy, shoulder-hunched, and protectively dense—attempts to retrace her daughter’s lost years between being a teenage runaway and a drug-addicted prostitute. Krista’s co-worker Rosetta (Kerry Washington) serves as her reluctant Sacagawea of the underworld. We see these seedy motels, thuggish pimps, and unfriendly faces first through Melora’s eyes—and, in the last segment, through Krista’s—as Montcrieff tracks the last day of her life. All the actresses here are top-notch—the cast is a who’s-who of female heavies—but as the doomed hooker with a heart that’s gold-plated at best, Brittany Murphy is raw and mesmerizing. Her Krista is an angry child going through the motions of jaded adulthood: she’s fierce and needy and frustratingly self-destructive. It’s a performance that officiously redeems her from that embarrassing stretch of tabloids and half-brained rom-coms.
Yet despite the film’s ambitions and talent, it lacks the edge that would make it a call-to-arms against abuse. It’s so fatalistic, it kills any optimism that the world could improve. When every female character is a victim at the hands of her mother or men, that’s not female empowerment, but female impotence. And Montcrieff further scrambles her message by hinting that the only hope two of her women have is the love of a good man. The rest are left hopeless or dead. What lingers is that women are passive creatures condemned to their fates—and while there’s much worth in the result of Montcrieff’s mishandled intentions, rather than succumb to this equally retrograde pessimism, I’d rather watch Sigourney Weaver kick her some alien ass.