“The Dead Girl” Turns the Crime Genre Inside-Out — and It’s Groundbreaking AF
2006’s The Dead Girl, written and directed by Karen Moncrieff, is one of those films that, despite being well-written, thought-provoking, and full of star power, managed to slip under the radar of both audiences and critics. Which is a shame, because this quietly dark indie film is probably one of the best — and most original — crime thrillers to ever grace the big screen.
Even though it’s fiction, The Dead Girl might seem familiar to fans of true crime. That’s because it hits all the story beats: first, a body (usually a woman’s) is found, then the body is taken to the medical examiner and inspected for clues and to try and find its identity. Next, we meet the victim’s friends and family to learn more about who she was before finally learning who her killer was.
But Moncrieff takes each of those beats, which are usually just treated merely as plot points, and expands them into a series of stories, which are presented in a non-linear way. Unlike most crime dramas, the through-line isn’t about solving the case; it’s about bringing us ever closer to the victim in a surprisingly suspenseful way.
Also unlike traditional crime dramas, the point of view isn’t that of the detective who solves the case. There is no detective, and the case is never solved. Instead, Moncrieff centers the perspectives of the women who encounter the dead girl (either directly or indirectly), and the intense, almost explosive effect it has on their lives.
Each tightly-written, atmospheric vignette is titled by the relationship that defines each woman within the scenario. The first one, “The Stranger,” opens with Arden (Toni Collette) finding a dead body near her home. The first few scenes are so quiet, they are nearly silent — a risky move, but one that pays off in emotional impact.
For whatever reason, Arden takes the necklace off the body — perhaps the only clue that could have helped identify the dead girl — and keeps it hidden, like a private little trophy.
Back at her home, we see that she lives with her invalid, controlling, verbally abusive mother (played by Piper Laurie, in a role fans of Carrie will recognize). We also learn that Arden had a brother who died young — though we aren’t told how or when, only that Arden’s mother openly wishes that Arden had died, and not her son.
But finding the body changes something deep within Arden. She accepts an invitation from a strange, kind of creepy man (Giovanni Ribisi). On their date, she engages in some pretty risky behavior, perhaps secretly wishing she could end up as a dead girl herself. Or, maybe she feels like she hasn’t been living at all, and wants to push the envelope, and to hell with the consequences.
Thankfully, Rudy (Ribisi) is just a harmless, if weird, true-crime nerd. After their encounter, she decides to leave her mother’s house once and for all.
Like the stranger, “The Daughter” is also trapped in the life her mother (Mary Steenburgen) has built around her.
Here, Leah (Rose Byrne) is an intern at a medical examiner’s office. We learn that she’s deeply depressed; her sister, Jenny, went missing 15 years earlier, and her family’s (particularly her mother’s) determination to find her has taken over their lives — a tragic scenario that is probably all too common among families whose children go missing and are never found.
Leah is tasked with prepping the dead girl’s body for the medical examiner. As she does so, she notices multiple clues that lead her to believe the dead girl is Jenny.
Finally, Leah feels a sense of relief knowing what happened to her sister, and that they can now put her to rest and go on with their lives. She goes to a wall in their house that’s covered in photos and clippings about her sister’s disappearance — a kind of shrine to Jenny — and rips them up and burns them. Then she accepts fellow student Derek’s (James Franco) invitation to a party, has sex, and generally starts to open up and live her life.
But her mother, understandably, refuses to accept that her daughter is dead. And once the dental records come back, she is vindicated: the dead girl is not Jenny.
Robbed of her closure, Leah falls back into her depression. But, in the end, she reaches back out to Derek, giving us the idea that there is still hope for her.
In “The Wife,” we are introduced to frumpy, uptight Ruth (Mary Beth Hurt), who’s upset that her husband, Carl (Nick Searcy), goes out doing “Mike knows what” at all hours of the night, but never takes her out. They argue, and Carl leaves in a huff.
The next morning he still hasn’t returned, and Ruth is forced to fill in for him at the storage facility where he works. She very quickly finds out that a unit listed as empty is most certainly not. As she searches through the drawers in the unit, she finds some very troubling items — including a wallet with a woman’s drivers license. She is able to match the ID to a woman — one of eight — who has been murdered.
Ruth is faced with a decision — whether to turn in her husband, thereby turning her own life upside-down, or not. Despite the pain and confusion Carl has caused her, she makes her decision, which ends — much like Leah’s — with fire.
“The Mother” is probably the most heart-breaking of the five stories. Suburban housewife Melora (Marcia Gay Harden) has just learned that the dead girl is her daughter, Krista. They have been estranged since Krista was a teenager, though Melora never knew why. In her quest to learn more about her daughter’s life, Melora pays Krista’s roommate/lover, Rosetta (Kerry Washington), to answer her questions. We learn a lot about Krista from Rosetta (whose name alludes to the Rosetta Stone, itself an metaphor for a key that unlocks hidden knowledge), including the reason she ran away from home.
It is only in the final vignette, “The Dead Girl,” where we see Krista (Brittany Murphy) directly, and the final piece of the puzzle is dropped into place. Addicted to drugs and engaging in sex work to earn money, Krista lived outside society, in a dangerous place full of dangerous people. But rather than portray her as the stereotypical murdered prostitute — a trope too many true-crime shows lean on — Moncrieff makes sure we see that Krista is a human being who struggled with her addictions, loved her girlfriend and her daughter, and hoped to rise above her troubled life.
On the day before her daughter’s birthday, Krista wants nothing more than to go see her and give her her birthday present in person. After a string of bad luck trying to get a ride, she ends up hitching a ride with a stranger — one we, the audience, already know.
By breaking up the timeline of the stories, it’s almost like we are solving the murder in reverse. Instead of seeing clues and then putting them all together to form the context, we’re given the context first, and the clues later. For example, in “The Wife,” one of the items in the storage unit is a pink puffy vest. In the final story, we see Krista wearing that vest.
Yet despite its non-linear structure, Moncrieff is a master at tying such seemingly unrelated stories together in subtle, natural ways. Some are minor, like the “Missing Girl” flyer seen in both the first and last stories. Others are more powerful, like how the phrase “trees and sky” is repeated in both the first and last story.
Though it was nominated for four independent film awards and won two, many critics condemned it as too depressing. The New York Times said it was full of “relentless emotional violence” and that it had a “chip on its shoulder” — an interesting criticism of a film written and directed by a woman and starring only women.
But The Dead Girl is a masterful deconstruction of crime and mystery thrillers. By centering women’s experiences of crime and bringing us ever closer to the victim, Moncrieff blazes a trail into new, more complex, and real portrayals of crime and all those who are touched by it.