Arden (Toni Collette) begins her day as usual. She wakes slowly, makes herself a sandwich, then walks — seeking brief refuge among the tall grasses near the house she shares with her mother (Piper Laurie). And then she’s stopped, abruptly. She’s found a body. Close-up shots reveal the detail that draws her: bloody wounds, fingers stiff and curled, ants. Spotting a necklace against the dead girl’s pale neck, she touches it, then pulls. And then it’s hers.
Within minutes of Arden’s reporting her discovery — and just two minutes into The Dead Girl — police and reporters are on the scene. The reporters are especially annoying, pounding on the door and worse, driving Arden’s mother to distraction. She mutters and sets her jaw, blaming her daughter for the unwanted attention from outsiders, now “swarming around my yard, ringing my bell like they know me!” Arden takes a breath and walks away, again. “That’s right,” snarls her mother, “You keep walking. You keep your mouth shut, you stupid!”
As indicated in these opening moments, Karen Moncrieff’s follow-up to Blue Car is not inclined to “celebrate” mother-daughter bonds or women’s creativity or nurturing. An anthology of five stories organized around the titular corpse (whose name is Krista and who will be played in a flashback segment by Brittany Murphy), the movie is a bleak but oddly robust homage to women’s survival and defeat in the face of violence, oppression, and non-options. None of the women quite comprehends or copes with her limits with grace, and yet the film doesn’t judge them; rather, it offers each up in her loneliness, enduring as she can.
Collette’s section, title “The Stranger”, considers the effects of her discovery, as she’s mildly celebritized and then asked out because of it. “Hey,” says her wannabe date, local grocery bagger Rudy (Giovanni Ribisi), “You look sweet on TV.” Turns out that Rudy has a not-so-unusual fascination with serial killers, and he sees in the body (or rather, what he hears about it) signs of pathology and cruelty. He spends the first hour of their date plying Arden with questions concerning the victim’s wounds or “nonfunctional cutting” (“That’s what they call it when the cuts don’t serve any purpose,” he explains). Arden has her own interests, though less plainly articulated, and their evening ends with sex involving mild bondage and her body laid out like a dead one, looking strangely “free.”
Toni Collette as Arden
Marcia Gay Harden as Melora
As the camera pulls out and above this unsettling image, you’re reminded of Rudy’s fantasy, shared when they were still driving: “It’d be the coolest thing,” he says, “If when somebody died you could peel off the top layer of their eyeball and develop it like film so you could have a picture of the last thing they saw.” While Arden thinks this through her recent encounter with Krista (she was looking up at trees and sky), the possibility that a last sight might give up information, whether emotional, forensic, or even spiritual, isn’t precisely comforting for the body with the eyeball peeled back. More urgently, as the film reveals repeatedly, seeing clearly offers precious little respite against the violence that shapes the lives of these women.
The other four segments in The Dead Girl are less adventurous thematically, but also increasingly grim. In “The Sister”, Leah (Rose Byrne) is struggling with the ongoing aftermath of a sister missing over 15 years. A forensics grad student, she’s hoping that the corpse Arden discovered is her sister’s, for knowing the end will, she imagines, help to resolve her family’s trauma. “What do you think it would look like to move on?” asks her therapist (Joanie Tomsky). It’s a good question.
Though Leah has a ready story — she’d be able to sleep, the sun would shine, mom would be “back in the kitchen” — it’s so painfully trite that you might wonder if she’d even want to live this life. Her entire existence has become so everyday-chaotic that she can only imagine “normal” as a circa 1956 TV show. As you see, Leah is indeed caught up in the shadow of corpseless death, her relentlessly frazzled mother (Mary Steenburgen) still finding ways to search for her daughter, her own career focused on evidence, blood, and flesh — evidence of death and causes.
Brittany Murphy as Krista
Mary Steenburgen as Beverly
Much like Rudy’s fantasy of the eye, Leah’s fantasy of mother-daughter bonding looks impossible. As if to underline the dire consequences of silence between women, Krista’s mother Melora (Marcia Gay Harden) learns that her daughter left because Melora’s husband was abusing her, and Melora did nothing. Though Melora insists she didn’t “know,” the film doesn’t specify where her ignorance begins. This section, “The Mother,” tends to soapy clichés, not least being Krista’s girlfriend and fellow prostitute, Rosetta (Kerry Washington). Rosetta and Melora are unable to ease each other’s pain or find closure. And Krista, in the last section, is most limited of all. Her earnest, corny, furious efforts to fight back against brutal men — her pimp, her boyfriend, her johns — leads her straight into the void of the killer, exactly where you know she’s headed.
Still, for all the violence done to Rosetta (a prostitute who expects nothing good will come to her) or Melora (who now can only imagine what her daughter went through and blame herself), the film’s most remarkable image belongs to “The Wife”, Ruth (Mary Beth Hurt in a bravely irritating performance). At the film’s center, in the third story, she gripes and worries, left alone at night when her husband Carl (Nick Searcy) goes out, again and again, “for a drive.” Even as suspects that his excursions are not so aimless as he claims, she still doesn’t imagine that he’s doing much more than “sniffing around prostitutes wetting [his] little noodle.” When a chance discovery — not unlike Arden’s of the dead girl — leads her to knowledge she’d rather not possess, Ruth has to make a choice.
The only options she can see mean her life as she knows it is over. One allows her to live with herself. As she makes it, she appears before a fire in a garbage can, where’s she’s dumping what she knows, never to look at it again. By the end of her evening, she’s stripped offer her own clothes and tossed these into the all-consuming flames as well. As she stands, so perversely resistant and so utterly naked, Ruth embodies the grief and torment of being a live girl.