The Dead Girl
THE DEAD GIRL, the new film from acclaimed writer/director Karen Moncrieff (BLUE CAR), is a quintet of stories about seemingly unrelated people whose lives converge around the murder of a young woman.
“The Stranger” is about the woman (Toni Collette) who finds the body. The publicity generated by the discovery creates an opening for her to break away from her abusive mother’s (Piper Laurie) control and form an unlikely bond with the mysterious Rudy (Giovanni Ribisi).
“The Sister,” a forensics graduate student (Rose Byrne), is torn between her mother’s (Mary Steenburgen) pressure to hold onto hope for her abducted sister's return and her longing to move forward with her own life. When she examines the dead girl, she is convinced that she has found the body of her missing sister, finally releasing her from her burden.
“The Wife” (Mary Beth Hurt) is trapped in an intense hate/love relationship with her husband (Nick Searcy). A terrible discovery about his connection to the dead girl's murder forces her to confront what she though she knew about him—and herself.
“The Mother” (Marcia Gay Harden) searches for answers about her runaway daughter’s life and is confronted with a series of revelations that change the course of her own life. She gets help in her quest from another troubled young woman—the prostitute (Kerry Washington) who lived with her daughter.
“The Dead Girl” (Brittany Murphy) is a fireball: hyper, volatile, self-destructive and subject to hair-trigger bursts of uncontrollable rage. She also has an innocent and child-like side. She dreams about improving her life and becoming a good mother to her young daughter.
The characters in THE DEAD GIRL are linked not only by their connection to a brutal murder but also by the difficult hand that life has dealt them. The film scrutinizes their inner struggles to overcome or surrender to their misfortunes. As in BLUE CAR, Moncrieff creates multidimensional portraits of women as they seesaw emotionally through a tangle of conflicting desires and fears.
Riveting and ultimately heartbreaking, THE DEAD GIRL confirms the promise of BLUE CAR, and heralds the arrival of Karen Moncrieff as a major American independent filmmaker.
Arden (Toni Collette) lives a suffocating, lonely life with her abusive, invalid mother (Piper Laurie), for whom she provides round-the-clock care. One day, while walking through a field, Arden finds the nude corpse of a young woman. Instead of being repulsed by the mutilated body, Arden appears to be fascinated and compelled by what she encounters – perhaps even awakened. After she notifies the police, the media descends on her, and she begins to attract the attention of other people, people to whom she’d previously been invisible, including a grocery store clerk named Rudy (Giovanni Ribisi) who asks her out.
Before Arden can keep her date with Rudy, her mother makes a cruel remark, intimating that Arden and her mother are bonded by a dark secret of their own – one they never discuss. Arden responds to her mother’s words with long-buried fury and nearly kills her. Horrified by what she’s almost done, Arden flees her house.
She runs to Rudy and on their night out together, he shares his fascination with serial killers and his knowledge about the dead girl. It seems at first that Arden is in danger but she somehow manages to turn the tables on Rudy while also giving reign to her own dark leanings.
In the morning, Arden discovers that she has exorcised her fascination with dead things and tells Rudy that she doesn’t “want to talk about serial killers anymore.” As she and Rudy head out of town, Arden stops to make one last call – to ensure her mother’s safety – before she can truly be free.
Leah (Rose Byrne) is a forensics graduate student who works at the county morgue as part of her studies. Leah’s sister Jenny was abducted as a child and has been missing for fifteen years, and her mother, Beverly (Mary Steenburgen), and her father, Bill (Bruce Davison), refuse to give up hope. Leah has come to accept that her sister is probably dead, but until she knows for sure, her emotional wounds can’t begin to heal.
When Leah prepares the body of the unidentified dead girl for the medical examiner, she sees something that appears to be a birthmark and becomes convinced that the girl is Jenny. The unequivocal evidence won’t be there until the dental records are checked, but Leah feels certain that she has been released from her lifelong burden.
Finally allowing herself to live again, Leah goes to a party and connects to co-worker Derek (James Franco).
For the first time, she experiences a bit of happiness, intimacy, and normalcy. But her joy is short lived as the dead girl’s identity, when revealed, proves more than her family can bear. Leah is again plunged back into her long-standing depression. She finds herself right back where she’s been for so long – listening to her mother’s plans to hire yet another private detective, to spearhead yet another fruitless search. Leah finds the strength to tell her mother the truth and try to shake her family out of the spell cast by their own myths and fictions. That night, rather than slipping back into a deadening depression, Leah enacts her own private memorial. Once she’s done, Rose finds that the catharsis she’d hoped for remains elusive. Devastated and alone, she manages to reach out and ask for the help she has longed for.
Ruth (Mary Beth Hurt) and her husband Carl (Nick Searcy) live in a trailer next to the storage units that Carl manages. Carl often goes out for drives by himself in the middle of the night and sometimes doesn’t return for days. Ruth is sure he’s out visiting prostitutes and this makes her feel abandoned and unloved. They have a regular routine where she insults him and he apologizes, yells, and then leaves.
The morning after his most recent departure, Ruth discovers a mysterious dresser inside a supposedly empty storage unit. Returning to the dresser later, she opens some of the bags and finds some bloody and torn women’s clothing and a driver’s license with the picture of a sweet-faced young girl—a picture she has seen before in an article about a serial killing.
When Carl finally comes back home that night, Ruth passively confronts him with a newspaper article identifying the latest victim of a serial killer’s spree. The young girl pictured bears a striking resemblance to the face on the driver’s license Ruth unearthed earlier. Suddenly, the quiet, bitter life that Ruth and Carl have long shared is on the brink of some great change.
When police identify the dead girl as a runaway named Krista (Brittany Murphy), her mother Melora (Marcia Gay Harden) drives from Washington to Los Angeles to I.D. the body. At the police station, Melora catches a glimpse of Krista’s last known address. She drives to the motel where Krista had lived.
She meets Krista’s former roommate, a prostitute named Rosetta (Kerry Washington), and learns the devastating news that Krista’s step-father (Melora’s husband) had sexually abused her. Devastated, Melora offers to take Rosetta out to eat, so she can find out more about Krista’s life.
As Rosetta regales Melora with sordid tales of Krista’s drug use and failed attempts at getting clean, Rosetta casually drops the fact that Krista had a child – a little girl named Ashley. Rosetta takes Melora to the squalid apartment where Ashley is staying with several other children. Acting only on instinct, Melora pays Ashley’s caretaker what’s owed her and whisks Ashley away. Rosetta asks Melora if she plans to take her – a question that stops Melora in her tracks.
Back at Melora's hotel, Rosetta watches Melora as she bathes Ashley. After the child is asleep, Rosetta tells Melora that she would have taken Ashley herself but just couldn't 'take care of a kid.' Melora, sensing Rosetta's guilt, realizes that her daughter and Rosetta were more than roommates--they were lovers.
In the morning, Melora offers Rosetta a place to stay. Rosetta refuses, trapped by her inability to envision a better life for herself. Melora drives home carrying a clearer picture of the past and vision of hope for the future.
The Dead Girl
At a toy store, Krista (Brittany Murphy) buys a huge pink bunny as a gift for her daughter, Ashley, whose third birthday is the next day. Krista asks regular john, Tarlow (Josh Brolin), to drive her to Norwalk, where Ashley lives, but he refuses and gives her a necklace instead.
On the drive back to Tarlow's place, Krista tells him how she never got what she wanted on her birthday as a kid and that she wants it to be different for Ashley. At Tarlow’s house, Krista does her laundry, services Tarlow, then wraps the bunny and writes out a card to her daughter: 'Mommy loves you verry much'. But suddenly Tarlow tells Krista that he has to go to work early because 'some shit's going down.' Krista goes berserk, hurling insults and accusations, upset that she'll disappoint her daughter.
Krista returns to her hotel and borrows a motorcycle from the hotel manager (Lee Von Ernst). Returning to her room, she finds that her girlfriend, Rosetta, has been beaten up by Tom (Dennis Keifer), one of her johns. Krista grabs her daughter’s present and leaves angry.
Stopping off to vandalize Tom's car as it’s parked outside of a motel room, Krista is confronted by him and a nasty brawl ensues. Krista gets the best of him and warns him to stay away from Rosetta.
Krista's euphoria at besting Tom turns to despair as the motorcycle breaks down on the road. Krista stops at a phone booth to call Rosetta, telling her nobody will ever hurt her again and promising to start over someplace better. Hitchhiking, Krista is picked up by Carl. He agrees to take her to Norwalk, but says he has to make a stop first.
A Statement from Writer-Director Karen Moncrieff
I've struggled for a long time to make sense of the constant violence against women and girls in our society, and its far-reaching and life-altering consequences. The news is full of accounts of rape, torture, kidnapping, mutilation, and murder, and in most cases the female victims are relegated to barely a mention. I usually feel powerless to do anything, except to try not to think about it.
A while ago, I was a juror on a murder trial. The victim was a prostitute, and I quickly realized that I had certain preconceptions about who this person was—a stock figure, more or less, and a negative one, if I'm honest—based on her occupation. On the other hand, I gradually recognized that another, opposing mental thumbnail pervaded: that of the innocent—a sainted victim. Both of these mental characterizations seemed to answer some need to avoid seeing this woman as a real person. But the testimony of the various witnesses—people who were there to corroborate the killer’s story, the victim's mother, the woman who took care of her children, her johns, other prostitutes, and one woman who had been her lover—forced me to confront the complexities and the wholeness of her life. She was a series of contradictions: a passionate mother of her young daughters, and an unmedicated bipolar, a drug addict, and a liar. She was a troubled human being, whose complicated life ended suddenly and undeservedly, and without apparent significance to the world at large.
After the month-long trial, small details stayed with me. An inventory of what was left of the victim's life when the police confiscated her belongings: a ratty duffel bag, a hairbrush, lingerie, a hand puppet. A hand-written card to one of her daughters, who was too young to read, telling her how much she loved and missed her. She left her beeper number. The tremendous waste of her life haunted me.
In The Dead Girl, a mutilated female body is found in a field. Five different women, all strangers, come into contact with the corpse, and all are transformed by the struggles which that contact provokes. The victim, it turns out, was a prostitute. A troubled woman with a complicated life. Her own attempted transformation forms the emotional core of the story.
While I was finishing the film, the story broke of the young woman in Austria who had been kept in a cell by a man for ten years before she miraculously escaped. Recently, a man in Pennsylvania went into a school house, sent out all the boys, and started killing the girls. Sometimes, when I look around at the state of the world, I'm truly afraid.
Someone more clever than I said that every good drama is an attempt by the writer to answer a question for herself. My question is this: How do we carry on in a world in which children are regularly abducted from their homes, killed in their schools, women are raped as they jog, stalked where they work, kept in cells hand-dug for the purpose, murdered, tortured, mutilated, wrapped in plastic, dismembered, and dumped like trash?
People ask why I make such dark movies. We live in a dark world, mostly with our heads down. We go about our business as if everything were fine, even though almost every single one of us can point to a friend, acquaintance, or family member who has been brutalized, molested, raped, or otherwise traumatized by an act of violence. One of my best friends was raped by a serial killer. Somehow, she escaped with her life, but the life she escaped with will never be the same.
Living with violence, and the aftermath of violence, and the constant threat of violence scars and numbs us all. The sense of numbness and isolation with which many of us live our daily lives is worsened each time we read about people relegated to descriptions like “the dead girl” or “the wife of a serial killer” or “the sister of the missing girl”.
I'm not sure that I've come up with a definitive answer to my question, but I no longer feel quite so powerless. My hope is that people will see The Dead Girl and have a heightened awareness of what another life might feel like beneath the label of Stranger, Sister, Wife, Mother, or Dead Girl—and, perhaps, feel the tug of a shared humanity. Or, maybe someone I don't know, someone who shares my struggle to make sense of our violent world, will leave the theater feeling that, from now on, she doesn't have to try not to think about it.