2½ stars (out of four)
Somewhere in our popular culture women die, heinously, every second. Countless jobs in the entertainment industry depend on it. In her acting days, like so many others, Karen Moncrieff gigged around in just enough episodic television ("Silk Stalkings," "Mike Hammer, Private Eye") and TV movies to make a little money off the national death wish.
Now Moncrieff, a Northwestern University graduate, has become a writer-director. Her follow-up to her 2002 debut picture "Blue Car" is "The Dead Girl," a stern account of how the brutal murder of a young woman affects an array of far-flung characters.
The way Moncrieff has structured "The Dead Girl," it's catnip for actors: Divided into five chapters, the script affords juicy roles requiring only a few days' work from each member of its impressive ensemble. The most prominently featured include Toni Collette, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Beth Hurt and Rose Byrne. Piper Laurie appears as the latest in her line of fearsome, throaty-laugh matriarchs who cannot be trusted.
It's a daisy-chain narrative, like "La Ronde." In the first segment a shut-in named Arden (Collette), caring for her punishing invalid of a mother (Laurie), discovers the bloodied corpse of a young woman in a field. Arden becomes a local celebrity, regarded with whispered awe. When she's asked out on a date by the local grocery bagger (Giovanni Ribisi), his come-on is just creepy enough to make Arden wonder if she's safe around him. Every male in "The Dead Girl" is a potential predator, just as every female is potential prey.
"The Sister" concerns a forensics grad student (Rose Byrne) coping with depression. Her sister disappeared years earlier. The student's mother (Mary Steenburgen) lives with the hope that she will someday find the sister alive. In "The Wife," Hurt plays a woman who discovers her husband (Nick Searcy) may be responsible for the girl's demise.
"The Mother" features Harden as the prim but driven mother of the deceased, who learns of her daughter's last known address. In a skanky motel room she meets her runaway daughter's girlfriend (Kerry Washington), a junkie and a hooker. In the final chapter, going back in time, we meet the girl herself, played by Brittany Murphy--a bundle of nerve endings and bravado, with a sweet young daughter.
The film has a look (coarse-grained "Boys Don't Cry" grit), a tone (mournful, death-shrouded), a seasoned cast and a core of moral seriousness going for it, more so than most serial-killer pictures. That will be enough for some. To me it still feels suspiciously like death-porn, studied and high-minded rather than slimy. But Moncrieff can write a good, tough exchange between lonely or threatening souls. The actors make what they can of those exchanges.
Moncrieff imparts a sense both of human connection and human isolation. In the end we're left with a film more schematic than dramatically expressive. But it may be that going at a familiar subject this way, from a spoke-and-wheel perspective, Moncrieff's film was destined to amount to five little movies of varying effectiveness than one big one. At any rate, between "Crash," "Babel" and so many others, it may be time for screenwriters to retire the kaleidoscope for a while, in favor of a good pair of binoculars.
'The Dead Girl'
Written and directed by Karen Moncrieff; cinematography by Michael Grady; edited by Toby Yates; production design by Kristan Andrews; music by Adam Gorgoni; produced by Tom Rosenberg, Henry Winterstern, Gary Lucchesi, Eric Karten, Richard Wright and Kevin Turen. A First Look Pictures release; opens Friday at Pipers Alley and the Century CineArts 6. Running time: 1:33. MPAA rating: R (for language, grisly images and sexuality/nudity).
Arden - Toni Collette
Leah - Rose Byrne
Ruth - Mary Beth Hurt
Melora - Marcia Gay Harden
Krista - Brittany Murphy
Rosetta - Kerry WashingtonCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times