A bigger, darker picture
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