dir: Karen Moncrieff
[img_assist|nid=791|title=The hard knock life|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=396|height=264]
There are plenty of flicks about murder. A character probably gets murdered in the vast majority of any of the flicks you can think of. It’s no surprise when you’re talking about Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but it’s even in Bambi and Finding Nemo, for crying out loud.
Sure, more people in romantic comedies should get murdered to prevent the unholy hellspawn of Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock from coming to fruition even in a fictional setting, but my point is that it is commonplace. We’re so used to it. It seems weird when it doesn’t appear in a flick.
In crime stories the murder might be the initial occurrence that kicks off the rest of the plot, or it happens along the way as characters get closer to The Truth. Usually the point in such a case is the revelation of the killer’s identity or the eventual capture/killing/rewarding of the person responsible. In comedies it’s what allows the hilarity to ensue for the Bernie of Weekend at Bernie’s fame to get to live a life now dead of far more excitement than when he was alive.
In a flick like The Dead Girl, the murder is not the trigger into a murder investigation. It is not the pursuit of the perpetrator that matters, or revenge, comeuppance, resolution, closure or any of the other crap we’ve come to expect. The finding of a girl’s body leads us to separate vignettes as we see the impact it has on an array of people’s lives, not least of all the dead girl herself.
In order, they are The Stranger (Toni Collette), The Sister (Rose Byrne), The Mother (Marcia Gay Harden), The Wife (Mary Beth Hurt) and the Dead Girl (Brittany Murphy).
The Stranger, taking some time out from looking after her mean, demented mother, is the one who finds the body. We find out in short order that the finding of a dead girl’s body is the least awful thing going on in this fragile but very messed up woman’s life, when her halting and unhealthy dealings with a serial killer obsessed ex-con (Giovanni Ribisi) show that the damage is already done.
The Sister looks at how Leah (Byrne), a young medical student has been living with a dark shadow cast over her life since the disappearance of her sister 15 years ago. Her parents, especially her mother (Mary Steenburgen) still structure their entire lives around trying to find their missing daughter. When the dead girl’s body is found, Leah hopes with all her might that it is actually her sister, since this would allow her to live her own life.
But we don’t always get what we want.
The mother (Marcia Gay Harden) of the murdered girl is called to identify the body, and she travels down to California from Seattle to see her. When she follows the dead girl’s last days, she lucks upon a woman who knew her, a fellow drug addict and prostitute (Kerry Washington). It comes up in conversation that the dead girl had a child, who of course newly discovered grandmother must find in the seediest part of town.
The Wife presents us with a character who hasn’t played a part in the film up to this point, sitting in her lounge room, bitching at her husband as he timidly tells her that he’s going to go out for a while. She seems like a real nagging bitch, but a chance discovery lets us know that something far uglier is going on.
Her husband’s night time travails are nothing compared to what the woman is capable of doing in order to maintain the status quo.
Finally, we have the Dead Girl, Krista herself. Brittany Murphy, who’s pretty notorious as a bit of a party girl, essentially plays the role as if she’s Courtney Love. She’s a highly strung cliché of a drug addict working girl, who is completely disorganised both mentally and in everything she does. Her one desire is to get to a distant suburb in order to visit her daughter on her birthday in order to give her a present. Of course, she ends up hitchhiking, which brings her to her fate.
It’s not about the murder. We never see it occur; we don’t know why even though we know who commits it. We get an inkling of how Krista ended up where she did on skid row, but there’s little more explanation than the usual sexual abuse cliché.
But each of the segments and each of the characters lives and breathes. The film, masterfully well directed by Karen Moncrieff, achieves a very difficult balance in terms of fleshing out the characters without ever forgetting what it was that brings them together, or at least to our attention. Each of the segments could be a film in itself, but instead they linger around just long enough to matter without belabouring any one set of points for too long.
Of course it’s a dark trawl through the murky night of the human soul, but it is definitely worth it, and it doesn’t come with the almost now standard transformation of a serial killer character into either a superhero or a subject worthy of character study. The killer is just a killer: a blank bastard who kills for no reason we get to find out.
It is the other characters who are more interesting, whose stories have greater resonance and substance. How often is a flick about a killer more about the actions taken by the wife than about the actions taken by the killer himself? Even so, I can honestly say that each sequence managed to be strong enough to keep me intrigued until the next, with characters that are anything but stock, and with dialogue that avoids the cliché and the trite, most of the time.
That’s not to say the characters are all pleasant. In fact, most of them have some less that wonderful aspect to them, no matter how tangential their relationship to the dead girl. Some are selfish and mean, some are dangerously masochistic, some were blind to the abuse going on around them, some could not return the love freely given them, and some will turn a blind eye to horror.
This sounds like there’s not a single character to care about, but that’s not the case. There’s complexity to the characterisations, and little is simple. It makes it more interesting for a jaded shlub like me to watch than just another generic flick about people killing people.
I can’t recommend The Dead Girl highly enough, with the usual proviso that my tastes are significantly different from other people’s tastes, and that this is about the impact of a murder on a disparate group of people. So it’s not really going to be fun for the whole family, and they’re aren’t a lot of barrels chock full of laughs. But it remains a pretty interesting flick throughout.
9 times I wonder how that wife can live with herself out of 10
“Don’t you think if she was dead that I would know?” – The Dead Girl.