Structured as five chapters, each focusing on a female character in some way connected to the "Dead Girl" of the title, Karen Moncrieff's film applies a slightly more sensationalistic bent to the usual roundelay of overlapping stories that comprise the ensemble drama. It opens promisingly, abruptly, as Arden (Toni Collette) comes upon the mutilated body while rambling around the windswept, wide open spaces of her mother's property. The discovery pushes the severely shy girl into the limelight and leads to an awkward encounter with Giovanni Ribisi - a shorthand bit of casting used to amp up a sense of the bizarre already indicated by Piper Laurie's "Carrie"-echoing presence, as Arden's atrocious mother. But the tantalizing, lopsided strangeness of this opening passage is never fulfilled by the following four episodes; it progresses instead along more blandly straightforward lines.
As with her first feature, "Blue Car," Moncrieff exhibits an admirable sensitivity in her earnest regard of her subjects and textural feel for images; she has a way of visualizing the female form - especially when nude - in a manner that attributes rather than strips personhood, as so often happens in American film. But this thoughtfulness is often undone by a disappointing narrative predictability. The writer-director's observations initially feel fresh, but then give way to cliches incongruous with her tangible search for the authentic.
In "The Dead Girl," Moncrieff's close attention to various easily overlooked women is undercut by this reliance on broad strokes: Capturing each individual - the stranger who discovers the dead body, the could-be sister (an affecting Rose Byrne), the mother (Marcia Gay Harden), the murderer's wife (Mary Beth Hurt), and the dead girl herself (a surprisingly noteworthy Brittany Murphy) - as she approaches a pivotal point in her life, she provides only standard-issue outlines (i.e., the dead girl was a hooker with a heart of gold who, beneath the smudged mascara and bottle-blond hair, longed to get her shit together and take care of her young daughter). And given the tumultuous event around which they circle, the short time allotted the separate segments (the movie runs 93 minutes total) fosters a tendency to flatten rather than detail (for comparison, see Rodrigo Garcia's lovely and perfectly calibrated "Nine Lives"). This in turn leads Moncrieff to derail her empathic project by occasionally sliding into the histrionic and grotesque in her descriptions of certain characters - particularly Hurt's frustrated wife. Since "The Dead Girl" isn't propelled by suspense - we may not know precisely how the pieces fit together, but the conclusion is foregone - without more attention to the minutiae that makes up its moving parts, it sadly lacks not only dramatic punch but also the resonance that would be its saving grace.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York's Film Forum.]