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The Dead Girl

The Dead Girl is a ballet-precise mini-opera about battered women's pain--beautiful in its lyrical, quickly paced tragedy.


Five downcast vignettes--with minimal, female-centric titles like ''The Mother'' and ''The Wife''--punctuate the titular Dead Girl 's (Brittany Murphy) demise. The five stories seem barely tangential, though all tell a larger story of Krista's sudden death and its impact on the community. The other stories--one of a forensics graduate student (Rose Byrne) with a missing sister, another of a sexually abused prostitute (Kerry Washington)--introduce unhappy women struggling with their lives. The film gives glimpses of an American society chock-full of emotionally ravaged women, ''dead'' in some way. We don't meet prostitute Krista until the final act, when, in Spun-era grubby mode, she is trying with plucky desperation to traverse L.A. for her infant daughter's birthday. The Dead Girl ends abruptly, and after five mysterious 20-minute vignettes, we're left wanting more, but the film's resonance, for its grim fatalism, lingers in the mind.


Many of the ensemble's characters are gorgeously conceived, framed for a wide audience like a major-studio film, but played with independent verve. Murphy--after dim-witted, grating turns in Little Black Book and Uptown Girls--is dead center. She is spitfire and brimstone as a heartbroken prostitute alienated from her 3-year-old daughter and family. Josh Brolin is deliciously detestable as Krista's controlling, uncaring trick. Mary Beth Hurt (Lady in the Water) is haunting as the wife of a potential murderer. Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden is understated as Krista's mother, as professionally adept as we've come to expect. Too many talented actors share the screen, in fact. Giovanni Ribisi, Toni Collette and Mary Steenburgen are all piercingly intense in brief roles, while plentiful Oscar nominees such as Piper Laurie and Bruce Davison decorate the The Dead Girl like window dressing.


Karen Moncrieff (Blue Car) talks in interviews of serving as a juror on a prostitute's murder trial several years ago. The experience influenced her to write and direct The Dead Girl. The devastation Moncrieff felt--the real-life victim's last belongings included a ''ratty duffel bag'' and hand puppet--allowed her to extrapolate into a 93-minute movie about the commonness of women's struggles. The Dead Girl is a bit too slight as a film, though, short on running time and resulting impact. Although shorter films are generally more user-friendly (in an era of the 138-minute Blood Diamond and the like), this one has the complexity that could have merited fuller character development. The Dead Girl, at its worst, can feel like so many of its independent film counterparts: moody, misunderstood, me-first and judgmental. At its best, The Dead Girl, nominated for a 2007 Film Independent Spirit Award for Best Feature, is fantastic.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 stars.