The holidays are coming to a close and it’s time to start feeling bad again. “The Dead Girl” helps you do that.
Writer-director Karen Moncrieff (“Blue Car”) weaves five separate well-acted stories about disparate figures who have some sort of connection to a murdered junkie prostitute, whose bloodied body is discovered baking in the desert sun at the start.
Each new tale is bleaker than the last:
—“The Stranger” introduces us to Arden (Toni Collette), the shy woman who finds the body and becomes an inadvertent celebrity because of it. But the discovery also gives her an unexpected boldness, inspiring her to say yes to a date with a grocery clerk she barely knows (played with a subtle creepiness by Giovanni Ribisi) and stand up to her abusive, ailing mother (Piper Laurie).
—In “The Sister,” forensics investigator Leah (Rose Byrne) examines the body and believes it’s that of her sister, who’s been missing for the past 15 years. She feels some closure and relief in this assumption, but her mother (Mary Steenburgen) is unwilling to give up the search, setting off some blistering confrontations between the two.
—“The Wife” finds Mary Beth Hurt’s character, Ruth, stuck in a miserable marriage to a man (Nick Searcy) who repeatedly sneaks off by himself at night, leaving her home alone. When she begins to suspect that her husband might be the killer, the frumpy, middle-aged Ruth figures out a way to regain control of her life. (The last image of this section is brave and haunting.)
—“The Mother” is about the prostitute’s shell-shocked mom, the prim Melora (Marcia Gay Harden), who has driven to Southern California from Washington to find out what happened to her little girl. She gets answers she never would have imagined from Rosetta (Kerry Washington), another drug-addicted hooker who was the victim’s roommate at a sleazy motel.
—And finally “The Dead Girl” herself, Krista, played with an electric volatility by Brittany Murphy. Up to this point a few pieces about her have fallen into place, but this final segment paints a full picture of who this young woman was. Meeting her heartbreakingly fills in the gaps, exposing her frenzied, failed attempts to clean up her act and be a good mother herself to her 3-year-old daughter.
Even though there’s a vague glimmer of hope in all these stories, you know that everyone involved is probably doomed; either you’re up for watching that or you’re not. After all of these various stages, the ending is a little abrupt and unsatisfying. Until then, though, strong performances make this tough material consistently watchable, especially from Hurt, Harden, Murphy and Washington.
That’s unusual — when films come along with such a fragmented structure, they tend to be hit and miss. “The Dead Girl” is moody from the beginning and maintains a stillness, a purity of tone, throughout. Moncrieff never gets melodramatic with subject matter that easily could have been; she won’t make you feel good, but she will make you feel.