Writer-director Karen Moncrieff divides "The Dead Girl," her dark follow-up to "Blue Car," into five short stories, each bearing a title referring to one of its characters. A blanched diorama of beaten-down women connected to one another by the hand of a killer, the film captures the sense of desperation that seeps into contemporary life when we are confronted by the inhumane.
Set in the less glamorous corners of Los Angeles County, the movie approaches a single incident from the perspectives of five seemingly unconnected women. In "The Stranger," Toni Collette plays Arden, a spinsterish young woman whose miserable existence caring for her cruel, bed-ridden mother (Piper Laurie) is so unbearable that her discovery of a nude, mutilated body elicts not repulsion but curiosity. Her 15 minutes of fame lead her to an awkward relationship with a creepy grocery clerk (a buffed-out, tattooed Giovanni Ribisi) who displays an almost scholarly knowledge of the tendencies of serial killers.
"The Sister," the film's second (and weakest) segment, casts Rose Byrne as Leah, a forensics student who is convinced that the body is that of her missing sister. Even though the sister was abducted 15 years earlier, Leah's mother (Mary Steenburgen) is certain the girl is alive and persists in posting fliers, seeking her return.
At times, Moncrieff holds the spooky key down too often in these first two segments, threatening to squash our curiosity with morbidness and unresolved portent. However, the film finds its groove with "The Wife," featuring a determined Mary Beth Hurt as a fed-up woman who makes a disturbing discovery of her own and then goes to unexpected lengths to maintain her equilibrium.
Equally strong is "The Mother," with Marcia Gay Harden as a fragile yet determined woman retracing the lurid path of her runaway daughter. Even when the worst possible conclusions are reached, the character soldiers on, insistent on trying to do the right thing and possibly repeating her mistakes in the process.
The film's final, eponymous chapter suffers because it mainly conveys information hinted at in the earlier sequences. Brittany Murphy plays the murder victim, an explosive, damaged young woman on the skids. The revelation of her final hours does little to raise the empathy level and instead deflates some of the film's mystery.
If the segments are uneven, Moncrieff -- with the help of her excellent cast -- nevertheless crafts a gripping overall narrative that exposes a shared dissonance among the protagonists. The serial killer motif is ultimately just a mechanism to illuminate a restrained rage among women on the fringes of society, powerless to stop the continuing cycle of being preyed upon.
"The Dead Girl," rated R for language, grisly images and sexuality/nudity. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.