The morning walk that is a woman’s only respite from her domineering mother becomes a life changing when she discovers the dead body of a young woman (Brittney Murphy), beaten and abandoned in a field. Soon the woman’s death will impact several women, some who knew her, some whom she never met. A coroner’s assistant (Rose Byrne) wonders if the woman on her slab is her decade-long missing sister. A battered wife (Mary Beth Hurt) begins to summon the courage to question her husband’s multiple days-long disappearances. A mother (Marcia Gay Harden) seeks absolution for the mistakes of the past.
On a certain level, The Dead Girl is a mystery movie, but the mystery here is not who killed Krista. Instead, the mystery is Krista herself, with each vignette peeling away another onion-like layer of information about her. But many clues initially that appear to be one thing are revealed to be something else in the final segment, which focuses on Krista and her final hours. (In this way, the film may owe a debt to director David Lynch’s Twin Peaks television series and subsequent film spin-off.) But in addition to layers of information about the titular character being revealed each segment also serves as a character study for the various women who find themselves either directly or indirectly affected by Krista’s death. For each woman, the death of Krista is a transformative experience, spinning their lives off in new directions.
To discuss the film’s plot and structure in much more detail would rob it of much of its impact. What can be mentioned is the uniformly excellent work the leads bring to the piece. Oft times it is lamented that there are not enough meaty, dramatic roles for actresses in standard Hollywood fare, but here, writer/director Karen Moncrieff has crafted a vehicle that provides a showcase for all her cast, the lead women especially. While it comes as no surprise that seasoned vets like Harden, Hurt and Steenburgen deliver outstanding performances, they in no way overshadow the strong work from younger actresses Murphy, Byrne and Kerry Washington as one of Krista’s friends. Moncrieff’s script also addresses the multiple ways women are preyed upon in society, but manages to do it through the narrative itself, never stopping the film to preach to the audience.