A big­ger, darker pic­ture

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

T, writ­ten and di­rected by Karen Mon­crieff, con­sists of five short films, each deal­ing with the mur­der of a young wo­man, Krista, from a dif­fer­ent view­point. The episodes, pow­er­ful and mov­ing in them­selves, form a co­her­ent and com­pelling whole.

Com­pli­ments are in or­der, and I’ll be­gin with rather a large one. My first thought was of Rashomon , one of the clas­sics of Ja­panese cin­ema, which gave us four ver­sions of a rape and mur­der as re­counted by the peo­ple in­volved. But that com­par­i­son won’t stretch very far. Akira Kuro­sawa’s film wasn’t strictly episodic in struc­ture and the wit­nesses’ ac­counts of the crime were con­tra­dic­tory and self- serv­ing.

The char­ac­ters in The Dead Girl , on the other hand, have no rea­son to dis­tort re­al­ity or evade its im­pli­ca­tions. If Rashomon was a film about the na­ture of truth, Mon­crieff is more con­cerned with the truth about hu­man na­ture. And her con­clu­sions aren’t ex­actly com­fort­ing.

As this is a film to be swal­lowed whole rather than an­a­lysed in sep­a­rate com­part­ments, I won’t de­scribe each episode in turn. But here are some threads from the larger ta­pes­try. Ar­den ( Toni Col­lette) lives with an abu­sive in­valid mother and dis­cov­ers Krista’s body one day while walk­ing in a field. The corpse is ex­am­ined by Leah ( Rose Byrne), a foren­sics stu­dent at the county morgue, whose sis­ter dis­ap­peared years ear­lier.

The un­happy Ruth ( Mary Beth Hurt) lives in a car­a­van with her furtive and in­dif­fer­ent hus­band. The dead girl’s mother ( Mar­cia Gay Har­den) goes in search of her daugh­ter’s past, and Krista her­self ( Brit­tany Mur­phy), a pros­ti­tute and drug ad­dict whom we meet in the fi­nal in­stal­ment, when she is very much alive, buys a birth­day present for her lit­tle daugh­ter, who is cared for by a guardian.

I re­mem­ber Robert Alt­man once say­ing that his pre­ferred anal­ogy for Short Cuts was of peb­bles thrown into a pond, the rip­ples of the char­ac­ters’ lives ex­pand­ing to in­ter­sect at ran­dom. Mon­crieff’s rip­ples take longer to in­ter­sect, and once or twice we are led to make a false con­nec­tion.

Ar­den’s first re­ac­tion to the dis­cov­ery of the body is to sub­mit to the at­ten­tions of a gro­cery store clerk ( Gio­vanni Ribisi), sub­sti­tut­ing her mother’s emo­tional bondage for the sex­ual bondage she seems to crave. Bad moth­ers are ev­ery­where in The Dead Girl . Leah’s mother ( Mary Steen­bur­gen) has an ir­ra­tional con­vic­tion that her miss­ing daugh­ter is still alive, and there are hints of a dark se­cret that Ar­den’s mother won’t al­low her to men­tion. The mother of the mur­dered girl dis­cov­ers the truth about the dead girl’s fa­ther too late.

The point is not just the con­nect­ed­ness of the char­ac­ters but their shared con­nec­tion to a larger so­cial malaise. Mon­crieff’s vi­sion — deeply pes­simistic, I fear — is of a world of lonely and des­per­ate women, sur­viv­ing in vi­o­lent fam­i­lies and bro­ken com­mu­ni­ties at the mercy of male ag­gres­sion and emo­tional in­ad­e­quacy.

Mon­crieff wears her fem­i­nism on her sleeve. Her vic­tims are all women; her men, with­out ex­cep­tion, are abu­sive, dan­ger­ous, love­less or in­ef­fec­tual. Her pre­vi­ous film, Blue Car ( 2002), was about a sen­si­tive school­girl’s in­fat­u­a­tion with a teacher, an­other take on the per­ils of wom­an­hood ( and dif­fi­cult moth­ers).

The Dead Girl , prompted by Mon­crieff’s ex­pe­ri­ences as a ju­ror in a mur­der trial, goes fur­ther. She is quoted as say­ing: ‘‘ How do we carry on in a world in which chil­dren are 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?’’

It is to Mon­crieff’s credit that she never al­lows her anger to verge on hys­te­ria or blunt her com­pas­sion. Her ac­tors serve her well, and it may be no more than home­town bias that leads me to sin­gle out two for praise.

Never one to shirk an unglam­orous or un­flat­ter­ing role, Col­lette de­liv­ers the film’s strong­est per­for­mance, a wound­ing study of con­fu­sion and self- loathing. The courage Ar­den finds to change her life is cred­i­ble and touch­ing. And Byrne, if not al­ready an es­tab­lished star, seems well on the way.

In a film in which most of the women are sub­mis­sive, vic­timised or de­ceived, her per­for­mance has a brac­ing strength and vi­tal­ity.

Many will find The Dead Girl too bleak and dispir­it­ing. That was my first re­ac­tion years ago to The Vagabond ( 1985), Agnes Varda’s film about an­other so­cial out­cast ( be­gin­ning, like this one, with a wo­man’s dead body in a field). That film haunted me and The Dead Girl may do the same.

Any one of its episodes is rich enough in ideas to have sus­tained a film of nor­mal length and many a writer would have hap­pily padded them. But by ruth­lessly par­ing her ma­te­rial, Mon­crieff has pro­duced a film of star­tling emo­tional in­ten­sity and nar­ra­tive con­cen­tra­tion, ex­plor­ing not only the cir­cum­stances of a par­tic­u­lar crime but a wider uni­verse of ex­pe­ri­ence.

Would it have worked bet­ter if the events had been in­ter­wo­ven into a sin­gle ensem­ble nar­ra­tive? It’s pos­si­ble. Would it be more ef­fec­tive if the episodes were given in a dif­fer­ent or­der? I doubt it. If Mon­crieff had been mak­ing a mur­der mys­tery, the third story might have come last; if a more up­beat tone were re­quired, we might have ended with the story of the sis­ter.

In The Dead Girl, no char­ac­ter is al­lowed to dom­i­nate. Our at­ten­tion is fo­cused where it mat­ters, and no one’s suf­fer­ing can be seen as in­ci­den­tal to an­other’s larger tragedy. In Mon­crieff’s dark, dis­or­dered world there is a kind of democ­racy of suf­fer­ing. Brave view­ers may want to share it.

In search of the past: Mar­cia Gay Har­den as the mother of a mur­der vic­tim in The Dead Girl , five short films tak­ing dif­fer­ent an­gles on the same mys­tery

Dead girl rid­ing: Brit­tany Mur­phy plays Krista

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