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Review: 'The Dead Girl'

Writer-director Karen Moncrieff divides "The Dead Girl,"her dark follow-up to "Blue Car," into five short stories, each bearinga title referring to one of its characters.

A blanched diorama ofbeaten-down women connected to one another by the hand of a killer, thefilm captures the sense of desperation that seeps into contemporary lifewhen we are confronted by the inhumane.

Set in the less glamorous corners of Los Angeles County, the movieapproaches a single incident from the perspectives of five seeminglyunconnected women. In "The Stranger," Toni Collette plays Arden, aspinsterish young woman whose miserable existence caring for her cruel,bedridden mother (Piper Laurie) is so unbearable that her discovery of anude, mutilated body elicits not repulsion but curiosity. Her 15 minutesof fame lead her to an awkward relationship with a creepy grocery clerk(a buffed-out, tattooed Giovanni Ribisi) who displays an almostscholarly knowledge of the tendencies of serial killers.

"The Sister," the film's second (and weakest) segment, casts Rose Byrneas Leah, a forensics student who is convinced that the body is that ofher missing sister. Despite the fact that the sister was abducted 15years earlier, Leah's mother (Mary Steenburgen) is certain the girl isalive and persists in posting fliers, seeking her return.

At times, Moncrieff holds the spooky key down too often in these firsttwo segments, threatening to squash our curiosity with morbidness andunresolved portent. However, the film finds its groove with "The Wife,"featuring a determined Mary Beth Hurt as a fed-up woman who makes adisturbing discovery of her own and then goes to unexpected lengths tomaintain her equilibrium.

Equally strong is "The Mother," with Marcia Gay Harden as a fragile yetdetermined woman retracing the lurid path of her runaway daughter. Evenwhen the worst possible conclusions are reached, the character soldierson, insistent on trying to do the right thing and possibly repeating hermistakes in the process.

The film's final, eponymous chapter suffers from the fact that it mainlyconveys information hinted at in the earlier sequences. Brittany Murphyplays the murder victim, an explosive, damaged young woman on the skids.The revelation of her final hours does little to raise the empathy leveland instead deflates some of the film's mystery.

If the segments are uneven, Moncrieff -- with the help of her excellentcast -- nevertheless crafts a gripping overall narrative that exposes ashared dissonance among the protagonists. The serial killer motif isultimately just a mechanism to illuminate a restrained rage among womenon the fringes of society, powerless to stop the continuing cycle ofbeing preyed upon.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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