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Death Becomes her

Writer-director Karen Moncrieff knows her way around a dead body

Karen Moncrieff's The Dead Girl is the scrap-bag opposite of a torture-porn movie -- or more precisely, a patchwork made up of the material that wannabe snuff flicks elide. Picture the scene, for example, in the recent Turistas, where a topless woman is sliced open on an operating table, only to have a mad doctor remove her organs while she watches. The movie's interest in the character extends no further than her tits, her guts and her death. She's gone from a viewer's mind even before the body bag is zipped.

The Dead Girl begins where the sequence in Turistas ends: with a girl's mutilated body. The movie then conducts what is essentially an investigation -- not into the gory details of the killing, but the grim human questions on the periphery. Who found her? Did the girl have a mother? A child? If so, what did they do next? As for the killer, might he even have a wife/mother/girl of his own -- unaware of that drawer out back in storage, far from the family den, where trophies of a secret life are kept?

It's easy to overpraise a movie like the showily acted, arty Dead Girl because it offers an antidote to Turistas' zipless bloodletting -- just as it's easy to cop a knee-jerk pose of moral superiority to the torture-porn genre, which can fiddle with our sympathies and taboos in illuminating ways. But Moncrieff's glum, somber film is something of a needed corrective at the moment, when horror movies are turning into weightless exercises in morally sanctioned sadism. Its multipart, fractured structure reverses the effect of Turistas' meathead surgery -- it brings a cold slab of exploitation bait back into focus as a human being.

The body's discovery splits The Dead Girl into five stories -- four afters and a before, each providing its own partially obscured angle on the crime. The first, "The Stranger," shows the murder's perversely liberating effect on the mousy caretaker (Toni Collette) who finds the corpse. Bullied by her harridan mother (Piper Laurie, even less nurturing than she was as Carrie's mom), she seeks escape with a wiry store clerk (Giovanni Ribisi) whose snake tattoo and wealth of serial killer lore spell bad company.

A missing girl's photograph passes the narrative focus like a baton to "The Sister," in which a forensics grad student (Rose Byrne) sees the corpse and thinks she's found her long-vanished sibling -- a possible end to her parents' stubborn hopes, but a chance to get on with her own paused life. The opposite choice faces "The Wife" (Mary Beth Hurt), who finds a connection between the dead girl and her lumpen, secretive husband (Nick Searcy); she must decide whether the dismal status quo is more appealing than a lonely future. The search of "The Mother" (Marcia Gay Harden) for her dead daughter's apartment leads to the final section -- in which the girl (Brittany Murphy in wild-child abandon) suddenly appears as flesh and blood on the last day of her life.

Shot by Michael Grady in half-shadows and with relentless scrutiny, The Dead Girlisn't as gimmicky as other films that fit the current vogue for chronologically scrambled, everything-is-connected puzzle movies with a bleeding-heart agenda. Moncrieff, who made a promising debut in 2002 with the teacher-student abuse-of-trust drama Blue Car, doesn't force some overlay of cosmic linkage on the stories: the plot strands that connect the five women are direct and plausible. Apart from the Rosebud-like device of a tattoo on the dead girl's arm and a key necklace, neither does the writer-director litter the film with the kind of hammy a-ha!'s that made Crash and Babel such eye-rollers. More often, images and details rhyme between the stories in mysterious ways -- the wife's pet rabbit and the dead girl's stuffed bunny, for example, or the burning of news clippings by two characters for gravely different reasons.

The chief problem with The Dead Girl, as with most current multipart films, is that the truncated stories don't give actors much room to develop a part: they're on-screen for such a short time that they're acting furiously from the get-go. Collette practically plows through a supermarket with a sign reading "Ask Me About My Misery," and Laurie actually cackles; roughneck Ribisi emphatically pronounces "bra" as "braw." Moncrieff's confrontational scenes and monologues would make great audition pieces -- catnip, no doubt, to the many name actors who signed on for this low-budget indie ensemble -- but in the context of a movie that's exactly how they sound, stagy and overwritten. Hurt's and Murphy's performances, which start off at such a high pitch there's nowhere to climb, manage to be both impressive and oppressive.

And yet Moncrieff, who comes from an acting background, works wonders when she listens closely. The best piece of acting in the whole movie is also the quietest. Having made a horrible discovery that casts her entire married life and future in shadows, Hurt unleashes another desperate, full-throttle tirade about her lousy marriage -- to which Searcy, the husband, simply says, "I'm sorry." It's not just the contrast between Hurt's near-hysteria and his eerie, mournful calm; it's the shading in Searcy's inflection -- a mixture of chilling moral absence and distant regret -- that suggests unfathomable inner darkness. In such moments, The Dead Girl is the best kind of psychological puzzle movie: the kind that can't be solved.

 
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