Saturday, January 13, 2007


As if seeing for the first time

By Edward Copeland
One of the great joys of habitual moviegoing comes when a performer you've not seen for a long time suddenly reappears in such an attention-grabbing way that you wonder where he or she has been lately. What's so amazing about The Dead Girl is that the film assembles a cast with nary a weak link and contains surprising turns across the board from supporting performers you've grown accustomed to being excellent.

You know that actresses such as Toni Collette, Mary Steenburgen and Marcia Gay Harden will be up to the task, but you probably aren't prepared for such strong turns from Kerry Washington, Brittany Murphy or Rose Byrne or for invigorating work from actors such as James Franco and Josh Brolin in what should be throwaway roles.

Most of all though, for me at least, I was unprepared to see such strong work from a great actress such as Piper Laurie, who hasn't seen a role this good probably since Twin Peaks went off the air, or, especially, the brilliant performance of a nearly unrecognizable Mary Beth Hurt.

The pleasant surprises of The Dead Girl aren't limited to who is in front of the camera either. Writer-director Karen Moncrieff's first feature, Blue Car, truly underwhelmed me, but The Dead Girl shows strength in every area where her previous work proved weak.

Moncrieff also manages to make what essentially is an anthology succeed in a way that most collections of stories don't. Jean-Luc Godard famously said that the best way to express criticism of a film was to make another movie and in its own way, that is what The Dead Girl does. It connects its five stories in a cohesive way that movies such as last year's Nine Lives or, to a lesser extent since the parallel isn't exact, this year's insipid Babel, don't.

What links the tales in The Dead Girl is the title character (Murphy) and how her life and death affect various women, some who knew her and some who didn't. Its theme of abused women never beats you over the head but instead just lurks ominously in the background as the performers and the story go on, letting the audience pick up on the themes instead.

Moncrieff deserves a lot of credit not only for constructing this script but for assembling this disparate a cast and using them so well, especially Hurt. I keep being drawn back to her. It seems appropriate that I review this film the same day as The Night Listener starring Robin Williams, since my first memory of Hurt was opposite Williams in The World According to Garp. If I didn't know going in that she was in The Dead Girl, I doubt I would have recognized her immediately since her role as the dowdy wife of the manager of storage trailers is so far removed from Helen Holm that you think you're seeing her for the very first time.

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My understanding of the term anthology is that it implies a lack of connection - rather, it's a series of self-contained pieces that exist as separate and distinct entities (something like Nine Lives or New York Stories would seem to fit the bill better than this film, as you've described it, or Babel). Nevertheless, this sounds like a very interesting film - as long as I'm in the city, I may try to see it.
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