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The Dead Girl: Not Deadgirl

July 9, 2009

“You are my sunshine, My only sunshine, You make me happy, When skies are gray”

Who is Karen Moncrief?  Obscure television actress and director of  Six Feet Under and Touching Evil, Moncrief wrote and directed The Dead Girl in 2006.  Starring an ensemble cast of well known actors and actresses, The Dead Girl explores the lives of 5 women all connected by the horrific discovery of said girl.  And if it wasn’t for the similarly titled lure of Deadgirl, I would not have discovered this subtle, dramatically dark gem.  This film is a rarity; it is about women struggling to cope with loss, with death, with disappointment, and it does it mostly without disparaging their male counterparts. 

The movie opens in the bedroom. Arden, lying next to her mother, looks tortured.  Cut to the rocky, barren Los Angeles hillside where Arden, played by the homely Toni Collette, discovers a dead body lying in the brush.  Naked and bloody, the body is stamped with a tatoo, 12:13, and a necklace lies in tangled hair.  Arden returns home to her accusatory and paranoid mother, Piper Laurie.  Upon learning of her daughter’s whereabouts, she admonishes her for calling the authorities, “You keep walking!  You keep your mouth shut!  You stupid…”

At the grocery store, Arden meets Rudy, an impressively muscle bound and tattood Giovanni Ribisi.  In what is a film stealing performance, Ribisi is both scary and sensitive.  Rudy is fascinated with serial killers, and tells Arden of a boy who stole women’s underwear only to cut it up into pieces.  He explains that the police question the boy and his parents, “and right then and there the cops let a serial killer slip through their fingers.”  He closes his story by admitting, “I wish we could peel off the top film of the eyeballs” and develop the pictures of the last thing the victims saw. 

Moncrief captures the sadness, the darkness, and the hidden parts of these characters. And when her camera looks down on Collette’s pale, naked body lying motionless in the grass under the morning sun, it is immediately clear that The Dead Girl of the title has more to do with the living girl/s than the dead. 

another dead girl

another dead girl

As the film unfolds, we meet “The Sister.”  A med student whose sister disappeared 15 years ago.  Her parents, played by Mary Steenburgen and X-Men’s Bruce Davidson, will not let their still missing daughter’s memory rest; and this sucks the life out of their “still living” daughter.

We meet “The Wife” of a man, who like so many men, is desperate to get away.  He grabs a bag and heads for the door.  “Did you ever think that I might want to go out?” she says.  It is heartbreaking.  And although we have only just met these two, Moncrief’s script is able to connect with only a few words and images.  The Dead Girl is powerful. The wife screams out, “Why do you hate me so much?” He responds with a muted, “I don’t hate you.” And when she retorts, “Then why are you always trying to get away from me,” the pain and sadness inside her pours forth. 

Each segment is more powerful than the next.  “The Mother,” played by Marcia Gay harden, is tragic and emotional.  And the final segment, the final day of the title character, will tear your heart out.  Brittany Murphy shows why she is an actress continuously in demand, and the final moments of The Dead Girl will stay with you long after the haunting words of “You Are My Sunshine” fade away.  Karen Moncrief’s The Dead Girl tells a story of love, desire, despair, obsession, depravity, and redemption; and the horrors that lie in the fragile relationships that hang so loosely in the balance.

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