What hath Crash wrought?

The Dead Girl

on December 29, 2006 by John P. McCarthy
The success of Crash has resulted in actors being more willing to accept small parts in ensemble films. A less positive consequence is that filmmakers seem more willing to believe any topic can be handled in a similar manner.

Talented performers fill out the pungent characters in The Dead Girl. Though nicely executed from a technical standpoint, the subject of victimized womanhood receives extreme treatment. Crash struck a nerve because it offered a positive slant on racism by allowing for the possibility of change and forgiveness. But no potential for redemption materializes in the thoroughly depressing world created by Karen Moncrieff ( Blue Car ). Many found Crash 's silver lining artificial, and the uncompromisingly bleak vision itself isn't the drawback here. Rather, it feels too schematic. All the women we meet have been pushed to the edge and are facilitators or victims of violence. They can choose to become angry, uptight shrews or wayward whores. Moncrieff leaves little room for more nuanced reactions.

Set in greater Los Angeles, the movie is divided into five taut segments about vulnerable women linked to a murder victim. In the first, Toni Collette plays a masochistic caregiver verbally abused by her invalid mother (Piper Laurie); after finding the titular body, she hooks up with a grocery clerk (Giovanni Ribisi) obsessed with serial killers. Rose Byrne is outstanding as the depressed forensics student who preps the body for an autopsy and whose sister has been missing for years. An unrecognizable Mary Beth Hurt devastates as the killer's spouse in the fourth, and Marcia Gay Harden oozes naive, middle-America mother-love in the least affecting part. Finally, the victim herself is energetically portrayed by Brittany Murphy.

Tracing anything in The Dead Girl directly back to Crash is tendentious, since both its baleful and positive qualities predate any possible influence of Paul Haggis' Oscar-winning film. Rather, male exploitation of young women is the theme of Moncrieff's 2002 drama Blue Car, in which a teenager (Agnes Bruckner) falls for her fraudulent English teacher (David Strathairn). It explored adolescent female angst with power and sensitivity, and featured tough, un-showy performances. Like The Dead Girl, Blue Car was about manipulation yet not, like Crash, as susceptible to the charge of trying to manipulate the audience.

Distributor: First Look
Cast: Josh Brolin, Rose Byrne, Toni Collette, Bruce Davison, James Franco, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Beth Hurt, Piper Laurie, Brittany Murphy, Giovanni Ribisi, Nick Searcy, Mary Steenburgen and Kerry Washington
Director/Screenwriter: Karen Moncrieff
Producers: Tom Rosenberg, Henry Winterstern, Gary Lucchesi, Eric Karten, Richard S. Wright and Kevin Turen
Genre: Drama
Rating: R for language, grisly images and sexuality/nudity
Running time: 93 min.
Release date: December 29, 2006 NY/LA

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