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The Dead Girl

Emotional Dispatches From a City of Lost Children

The Dead Girl is a raw, unflinching glimpse at the wounded, interconnected lives of those touched by a murder. The victim is Krista (Brittany Murphy), a runaway-turned-prostitute who has the misfortune, one fateful night, of hitching a ride with a serial killer. Left behind are her estranged mother, her emotionally broken roommate and others whose connections to the crime are a bit more tenuous. Then there’s the killer and his frustrated wife, who wonders where her husband disappears to for days at a time.

Directed by Sacramento native Karen Moncrieff, whose Blue Car was a surprise hit at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, The Dead Girl consists of five vignettes, each inhabited by women desperate to feel something other than the pain that follows them everywhere. It is a bleak vision of humanity, but powerfully effective. Despite an escalating series of emotional body blows that might have seemed excessive in the hands of a lesser director, Moncrieff’s story never feels contrived. It achieves a level of bruising emotional honesty that is all too rare in American film.

Despite the senselessness of Krista’s death, it provides some measure of consolation for the survivors. Arden (Toni Collette), who discovers the ravaged body, uses her fifteen minutes of local celebrity to free herself from the clutches of her abusive mother. Leah (Rose Byrne), who initially believes Krista’s corpse to be that of her long-missing sister, is temporarily relieved after years of uncertainty. When she learns otherwise, she is crushed, but the experience forces her to break with the past and move on. Meanwhile, Krista’s mother (Marcia Gay Harden) forms an unlikely bond with her slain daughter’s roommate (Kerry Washington) and discovers the reason Krista left home in the first place.

Yet the most haunting vignette is Krista’s. As the girl in the title, Murphy is a volatile mix of raw nerves, manic energy and compassion, always ready for a fight if it means defending her roommate, with whom she seems to share a romantic bond, or her own three-year-old daughter, Ashley.

Krista is a mess, of course; like every other character in The Dead Girl, she is damaged to the core and terribly scarred by abuse. But she remains pure of heart, despite the squalid depths to which she has sunk. As she excitedly chatters on about her plans for Ashley’s birthday, riding with the man who will take her life, one cannot help but wince with foreboding. For the rest of the characters who populate Moncrieff’s grim universe, there is some small measure of hope. For Krista, there is none.

This is one of the year’s best films.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars