Taking place over the course of five separate, yet interconnected storylines, The Dead Girl chronicles the lives of a few people after they come into some sort of contact with the dead girl of the title. Well, four of these stories play out this way, while the fifth, despite occurring last, acts as a prologue, and shows us the actual “dead girl” from the other stories. I hope that made sense to you.
First is “The Stranger,” which involves an emotionally crushed Arden (Toni Collette) finding the dead girl in a field, fighting with her mother, and eventually going on a date. Next is “The Sister,” which has Leah (Rose Byrne) prepping a dead body which happens to resemble her sister, who has been missing for the last fifteen years. Yes, this is the same dead body that Arden found in the first story. “The Sister” works as a bridge to our fourth story, as it introduces the main character from it without us even really knowing.
In that one, titled “The Wife,” shows us a woman named Ruth (Mary Beth Hurt) and her neglectful husband, Carl (Nick Searcy). He leaves, she has to run his business, she finds out that he might be hiding something, and so on. Next, we have “The Mother,” which follows the dead girl’s mother, Melora (Marcia Gay Harden), and her attempt to find out about her estranged daughter’s life. We saw Melora in story #2, although we didn’t know she’d have a major part to play until this point.
Finally, we have “The Dead Girl,” where we finally meet the deceased Kirsta (Brittany Murphy). She’s lively here, and we find out that she has a daughter, relies heavily on a man named Tarlow (Josh Brolin), and it’s her daughter’s birthday tomorrow. We know that she’s killed somehow (and no, that’s not a spoiler), but we grow to love these last few moments of her life. Murphy plays her with such joy that it makes it heartbreaking to realize she’s not making it to the end of the film.
The Dead Girl is about how the titular corpse affects the characters that come into contact with it. Seemingly all of the women of the film are “dead,” in one way or another, and meeting this magical carcass seems to be just the thing needed to begin rebuilding it. Or at least give them the option to do so, as a few decide that they’ll stay where they are, not wanting to improve their lives any. I’m all for free choice, but if someone offers to get you out of a life of drugs and prostitution, it might be a good idea to accept their offer. I’m just saying.
As revelations occur and you begin to realize the importance of earlier scenes, The Dead Girl starts to make a lot more sense. These aren’t all separate scenes with only a minor, tangential connection; they’re connected in theme, in dialogue, and in tone. They’re trying to tell a story, sure, but they’re also trying to get you to think, to realize certain things about your own life, and to make you feel something. The only question now is whether or not they’re successful.
For the most part, I think that they are. I felt sad while watching this film, and I think that was the goal. The feeling really hits home after watching the prologue detailing Kirsta and her personality, although the tone is decidedly negative throughout. Did the film make me think about my own life and the people in it? Maybe a little, although I was more involved and engaged in the stories that it told me instead of the one I’m currently living.
The very best films make you forget that you’re watching a motion picture. You get so involved that you’re fully immersed in the diegesis presented to you. The Dead Girl comes close to this immersion, but fails largely because of the separate chapter headings. Without them, I probably would have been more involved than I was — and I was quite engaged with the story. It’s just that these breaks in immersion destroy the flow of the film, I wanted to let The Dead Girl take me in, and while it does at times, it fails overall because of these breaks.
That doesn’t make it a bad film, though. It made me emotional, it made me think, the gimmick of its storytelling technique pays off well when the prologue comes around, and I had a good time. Well, not a “good” time, but an engaging one. Calling it “good” is wrong, as it was a depressive film, but I can appreciate the skill that went into crafting it. That makes a film
“good” in my eyes, even if its content isn’t supposed to make you feel excellent about yourself.
What perhaps makes the film worthwhile is the actors. They’re all tremendous, bringing something special to their roles, even if it seemed to me like some of the cast was underused. We’re given five stories, and only about 90 minutes to tell them. If they are all even, that’s only 18 minutes a story. Actors rarely appear in more than one, meaning that most of the cast gets, at most, 18 minutes to shine. They do really well given the limited appearance time, but I did want to see more of everyone involved, especially Murphy, who is probably the highlight of the film.
The Dead Girl is a marvel — a film that you should absolutely go see. Each mini-story means something, but together, the film comes together and becomes a great watch. Depressing, as there are few happy moments throughout, but great nonetheless. The actors are great, the writing is solid, and the story was interesting and told in a somewhat unique way. The only real complaint I have is that I wanted more. Definitely seek this one out unless you hate films that make you emotional.