I used to keep a list of my top ten all-time favorite movies. It’s probably been 25 years since I’ve kept such a list, but I remember the films in the top five never changed during the four or five years I maintained that list. Slots six through ten were a bit more transient, as there might be a new movie (new to me, not newly released) in any given year that could slide into one of those slots. By the time I stopped keeping such a list, these were my top ten films: My Dinner with André Citizen Kane All that Jazz Apocalypse Now Last Tango in Paris 2001: A Space Odyssey A Clockwork Orange Blade Runner The Godfather The Story of O I eventually stopped keeping such lists (except, perhaps, in my subconscious). However, about seven years ago I saw The Dead Girl on HBO and I immediately knew it would have broken into my old top five—dropping Last Tango in Paris down to #6, and making my complete list from 25 years ago look like this: My Dinner with André Citizen Kane All that Jazz The Dead Girl Apocalypse Now Last Tango in Paris 2001: A Space Odyssey A Clockwork Orange Blade Runner The Godfather However, with my recent re-evaluation of A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick’s second film on my list may need to drop off. In fact, due to movies I have watched in the past 25 years, my current list would probably look like this (though the order of the bottom five is malleable): My Dinner with André Citizen Kane All that Jazz The Dead Girl Apocalypse Now Last Tango in Paris 2001: A Space Odyssey Network The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford Blade Runner Obviously, in addition to The Dead Girl, I have added two other “new” movies: Network and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Of course, Network isn’t new; it came out in 1976, but I saw it for the first time just four years ago—so it’s new to me. Additionally, it finally allows for comedy to make my list, as I was recently questioned about whether I like comedies at all. Granted, Network is a “dark comedy” with cynical undertones (because it was written by the great Paddy Chayefsky), but it’s still a comedy! Anyway, I did not seek out The Dead Girl when it started running on HBO about seven years ago. I had not heard of the movie at that time. I was simply looking through the HBO guide to see if anything looked good. The description of The Dead Girl made it sound like the type of movie I might be interested in seeing: “The clues to a young woman’s death come together as the lives of seemingly unrelated people begin to intersect.” Thus, with only a brief description of the film to go on, I set my DVR to record the movie and I watched it a week or so later. After seeing it, I was completely amazed by this relatively unknown independent film that was written and directed by a relatively unknown former actor (Karen Moncrieff) and that starred at least ten relatively famous actors within an ensemble cast in which no one was “the star” of the film even though Brittany Murphy sort of has the title role (listed in order of appearance): Toni Collette (Little Miss Sunshine) Piper Laurie (Twin Peaks) Giovanni Ribisi (Saving Private Ryan) James Franco (Spider-Man) Mary Steenburgen (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) Bruce Davison (X-Men) Nick Searcy (Justified) Marcia Gay Harden (The Newsroom) Brittany Murphy (King of the Hill) Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men) There are numerous other actors in the movie, but the ten I listed comprise a very impressive cast for a small-budget film that only a few people knew about nine years ago when it debuted, and that not many people know about now. However, most of the cast members didn’t work with each other because the film is divided into five segments in which only three actors cross over from one segment to the next: “The Stranger” “The Sister” “The Wife” “The Mother” “The Dead Girl” There is, of course, a connecting point between these five short films—a young woman’s death that affects at least one of the characters in each segment. The natural assumption is that the dead girl of the film’s title is the character played by Brittany Murphy—but that assumption is only partly correct. Actually, there are at least five “dead girls” in the movie—the titular female characters of each of the five short films. The Stranger In “The Stranger,” Toni Collette plays Arden—a woman in her mid-30s who may still be a virgin and who lives with her invalid mother. To temporarily escape the overbearing and emotionally abusive mother (played by Piper Laurie), Arden takes long walks in the arid foothills near her home. One day, after eating her lunch under a tree in the stark landscape, Arden walks home along a trail and discovers the naked, decomposing body of a young woman. After staring at the body for a while, she continues home and performs her daily chores—such as bathing her mother and washing the dishes. Eventually, Arden notifies the police about the body—several hours (perhaps days) after she initially found it. Finding the body makes Arden a “local celebrity” with reporters wanting to interview her, townspeople whispering about her while she’s at the grocery store, and one forthright young grocery store employee, Rudy, taking her groceries to her car while trying to hit on her for a date. Rudy (played by Giovanni Ribisi) comes across as a bit creepy and intimidating, and Arden initially rejects him. However, after he says he isn’t going to hurt her, she looks up at him with a blank-faced gaze that is . . . open for interpretation. We don’t actually learn whether she concedes to the date or not. Back at her mother’s house, Arden seems to be preparing for a date—dying her hair, applying makeup and lipstick, studying herself intently in the mirror—but the reality of her cosmetic changes may all be part of Arden living out a fantasy of going on a date (with anyone), but not because she actually agreed to go out with Rudy. In any event, whether she was preparing for a fantasy date in her mind or going out on an actual date with Rudy, her vanity efforts end when her mother discovers what Arden has been doing. During the verbal abuse the mother unleashes, we learn that Arden had a brother who died at some point (he looks about 13 years old in Arden’s faded photograph of him). His death may be the cause of the mother’s abusive behavior toward Arden. It is also likely to be a contributing factor to Arden’s withdrawn and emotionally dead life—particularly as the mother later screams, “I’ll tell them what you did; they’ll arrest you” as if Arden murdered her brother or is in some way responsible for his death. In a sense, both of these women are “dead girls.” If the mother was ever a loving woman, that part of her seems to have died with her son—leaving only a hateful and spiteful monster who enjoys verbally abusing the daughter she blames for her boy’s death. Similarly, Arden seems emotionally dead; she seems incapable of allowing herself to feel any sense of self-worth or to form any emotional attachments. When emotions arise in Arden—such as the proud way she told her mother that she was the one who discovered the body, or the joy she felt in Rudy wanting to go on a date with her that led her to applying makeup and lipstick—she inevitably represses those feelings because they are points of vulnerability that her mother will exploit and attack. Thus, as the eponymous “Stranger” who found the body, Arden is a “dead girl.” However, she finds a way to resurrect herself by “running away” from home (if a woman in her 30s finally moving out of her mother’s house can be called “running away”) and agreeing to actually go out with Rudy. While the interaction between Rudy and Arden is creepy, that interaction slowly resurrects Arden’s emotional life. Part of the creepiness of Rudy is that he seems to understand the mind of a serial killer more than he probably should, as he begins to profile the man who killed the young woman whose body Arden found. Another part of the creepiness is that Arden will only allow Rudy to touch her—and kiss her—if he will tie her up first. He actually suggested tying her up as a weird joke, but he then rejects the idea after Arden says he should tie her up if he wants to kiss her. Eventually, she unstraps his belt from around his waist, but it isn’t so she can get into Rudy’s pants; it’s so she can hand him something to use to bind her wrists together. The positive experience Rudy eventually gives Arden is when he refuses to have sex with her after she consents to his overtures by lying back like a corpse so he can fuck her body: “You don’t even kiss me. You know, you’re just lying there like you want me to rape you!” Through this scene, we may have inadvertently learned a lot about Arden’s childhood and possible motive for murdering her own brother—if she did, in fact, murder him as her mother implied. However, if a history of bondage and incestuous rape are the foundation of Arden’s dead emotional life, then this revelation is very subtle; I did not notice the implications of this scene until my third viewing of the movie. In the end, Arden has consensual and willing sex with Rudy, and then phones 911 to let emergency personnel know there is an invalid woman who needs help “in the house . . . where they found the dead girl.” Arden, however, is no longer a dead girl, and she will no longer be found in that house. The Sister The transition between “The Stranger” and “The Sister” occurs in the phone booth that Arden uses to call 911 about her mother needing help. Posted on the wall of the phone booth is a “Missing Child” flier with a photo of an 11-year-old girl next to an “age progression” photo that shows what that girl would look like now at the age of 26. We then see that same flier on a wall at the beginning of “The Sister” and eventually learn that the child, Jenny, who has been missing for 15 years, is the sister of the eponymous “Sister”—the second segment’s protagonist, Leah (played by Rose Byrne). Leah is a forensic science assistant who works in the coroner’s office where the body of the young woman Arden found is being stored as a Jane Doe awaiting autopsy. In the opening scene, Leah is staring at the “Missing Girl” flier on a wall in her home while her mother (played by Mary Steenburgen) tries to decide which old photograph of Jenny to use on the new fliers she is going to have printed. As the mother talks through her thought process of which photo to use, we realize she is mainly talking to herself; Leah has tuned her out. As she takes an anti-depressant from a pharmacy pill bottle, it’s obvious Leah has heard her mother’s monolog countless times over the past 15 years. In the next scene we see Leah during a therapy session with her psychiatrist who asks, “What do you think it might look like to move on?”—and it is that question that clarifies in exactly what way Leah is herself a “dead girl.” The lives of Leah and her parents have been essentially stagnant for the past 15 years. They’ve maintained their daily duties of going to school or work as part of their existence, but they have not allowed themselves to be alive since Jenny’s abduction from a local park in 1991. To be more precise, Leah’s mother has not allowed her husband and surviving daughter to live for the past 15 years, as she is also a type of “dead girl” who has been fixated on her missing daughter to the apparent exclusion of all else. While the mother is “dead” through her obvious obsessive-compulsive disorder that centers on Jenny’s abduction and hopeful return, Leah is “dead” due to her psychological-based depression (as opposed to a physiological-based depression caused by a chemical imbalance). Leah is functional due to anti-depressants and therapy sessions with her psychiatrist, but it’s obvious she does not have a life outside of work and home. While working a night shift in the morgue, Leah is assigned the task of prepping the dead woman’s body for the next morning’s autopsy—which is when she notices a birthmark on the middle finger of the left hand of the corpse. That birthmark seems identical to one Jenny also had on her left hand’s middle finger. Furthermore, a photo the police obtained of a missing woman who is a possible match to the Jane Doe shows she has a nearly identical face to the one in the age progression photo of Leah’s missing sister. Finally, Leah seems to believe the tattoo of “12:13” on the dead woman’s arm is a providential sign that she has indeed found her sister, for Leah searches “12:13” on the Internet and discovers that Genesis 12:13 appears to be a message intended specifically for her: “Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister: that it may be well with me for thy sake; and my soul shall live because of thee” (KJV). Her sudden belief of accidentally discovering Jenny after 15 years gives Leah hope that she and her family can find closure and move on to the life Leah envisioned when she answered her psychiatrist’s question. Suddenly, Leah is resurrected through her conviction that the dead woman is Jenny, and she convinces the coroner to order a dental record analysis and comparison to prove the corpse belongs to Jenny. While she awaits the results of the dental record comparison, Leah allows herself to become romantically and sexually involved with a co-worker named Derek (played by James Franco) who has been pursuing her for three years. When he tells her how long he has been inviting her to parties at his house Leah’s response is, “Have you?” In answer to Leah’s question, Derek nods his head yes and says, “I don’t know about you, but every now and then I like to be around somebody that’s not dead.” Of course, the irony is that Leah has been a type of dead girl for the past three years that he’s known her—but now that she’s come back to life, she is able to realize how the people around her have been responding to her. She is able to see possibilities in allowing herself to open up to others—to develop relationships rather than to merely have acquaintances. As you would expect, the Lazarus effect caused by Leah’s belief of having found her sister doesn’t last; the comparison of the dental records arrive the morning after Derek’s party—the morning after she spent the night with Derek—and they prove the corpse in the morgue is not Jenny after all. This sudden disappointment after her one day of resurrection sends Leah into an even deeper depression than before—one that threatens to make her forever dead to the world. As clinically depressed people often do, Leah remains at home—unable to get out of bed while neglecting such things as eating, going to work, answering the phone, and interacting with others. Fortunately for us, Leah has an old-style answering machine rather than voice mail, so we are able to hear the message Derek leaves on her phone as she lies in bed in the dark: Leah, it’s me. You around? You okay? You alive? [sigh] Okay, I’m just uh . . . trying you again. Just call me back, okay? Even if it’s just to tell me to . . . you know . . . leave you the hell alone. I just want to know you’re okay. Okay. Bye. Eventually, and following her mother’s rejection of the idea of holding a memorial service for Jenny, Leah begins to attempt to resurrect herself by burning all the fliers and newspaper articles about her sister that have accumulated for 15 years—and the segment ends with Leah phoning Derek and crying out for help. The Wife The oddest “dead girl” in the film is the wife of a man who leaves home every few weeks and is gone for days without letting her know where he goes or what he does. The wife, Ruth (played by Mary Beth Hurt), feels trapped in a marriage to a man who has emotionally distanced himself from her, and who claims his “drives” (his car trips that apparently last for days) are merely excursions that allow him to clear his head. The husband, Carl (played by Nick Searcy), is the manager of a storage facility, and he and Ruth live in a small house on the storage facility property—as is often the case with such small-operation facilities that require 24-hour attendance. However, due to his “driving excursions,” Carl is in danger of being fired by the owner of the storage facility, and Ruth tells him she isn’t going to continue to cover for him while he’s away. Like Arden and Leah before her, Ruth is emotionally dead save for the sorrow she feels when she thinks her husband hates her, and the rage she feels when she is convinced he is seeing other women when he leaves her for days—as she says, she believes he is “out gallivantin’ Mike only knows where with Mike only knows what kind of filth!” Despite his wife’s protests and threats of being gone when he returns, Carl leaves to “go for a drive.” There is a sense that he knows Ruth will not be gone when he returns—a sense that she has nowhere else to go. Being married to Carl is the only existence Ruth knows regardless of how remaining with him has caused her to be dead emotionally and spiritually (Ruth is somewhat religious and condemns Carl for taking the Lord’s name in vain in her house). While Carl is away, and despite her claims that she would not do his job for him, Ruth ends up opening the facility office when two men come by to rent a storage unit. She rents a unit to them, but they then return and claim the unit she assigned is already being used. After checking the office records and physically inspecting the supposedly empty unit, Ruth assigns a different unit to them. Later, Ruth inspects the contents of the supposedly empty storage and is shocked at what she finds. She eventually throws it into a huge pile that she ignites to create a bonfire onto which she also tosses the clothes she had been wearing—as if she is undergoing a complete rebirth in her own resurrection from the dead. Symbolically, the fire burns away her old life in a way that a water baptism could not have achieved, as she comes to terms with who Carl is and what he does when he goes for a drive. Ruth won’t ever depart from Carl. Instead, she will cast aside her old life and cleave onto Carl in the same way that her Biblical namesake clave unto Naomi—and with much the same sentiment and devotion: And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me. (Ruth 1:16-17 KJV) However, as Carl’s wife, Ruth has now rejected the god of her namesake in favor of accepting Carl’s god—who is probably closer to being Moloch (or Molech)—with Ruth’s final action of burning the evidence that could be used against Carl as a type of reversal of Leviticus 18:21 in which the Judeo-Christian God said, “And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the Lord” (KJV). Through her bonfire, Ruth is making certain nothing may pass back to Yahweh; in effect, she has suddenly become an accomplice in what happened to the woman whose body Arden discovered. The Mother With “The Mother,” the film begins to move into more predictable territory—but it’s well-written, well-directed, and well-acted predictable territory. The mother of the dead woman whose body Arden discovered has traveled to Los Angeles from Washington State to identify the body of her daughter, Krista. In fact, we had briefly seen the back of the mother, Melora (played by Marcia Gay Harden), in the morgue after Leah learned the dental records showed the corpse was that of Krista Kutcher rather than Jenny. Melora then tries to learn about what Krista’s life was like after she ran away from home and came to LA—so she visits the run-down motel room where Krista used to live and meets Krista’s former roommate, a slum-dwelling prostitute named Rosetta (played by Kerry Washington). Like the stone that shares her name, Rosetta translates the “hieroglyphs” of Krista’s life for Melora—whose own name seems to be an allusion to King Arthur’s daughter, who also was the keeper of a precious stone in British mythology. From Rosetta, Melora learns that Krista worked as a prostitute. Later, she also learns Krista tried to get off drugs and work in a nail salon before being fired from that job. However, the devastating revelation for Melora was when she learned why Krista left home when she was 16—and it is the single cliché in this otherwise amazing movie: Krista’s stepfather was raping her without her mother knowing what was happening! While Marcia Gay Harden gives a superb performance as the middleclass housewife who has learned that her ex-husband had been secretly raping her teenage daughter from a previous marriage, I am so tired of that trite topos being used in stories. Of course, that type of horrendous thing does actually happen in real life—I’m not denying the reality of incestuous rape. However, as a plot element it has . . . “worn out its welcome”—to use a clichéd expression to comment on a clichéd convention. That plot device was a welcomed element decades ago. Neither rape nor incest should be kept quiet as a form of cultural shame, but incestuous rape should also not be overused in stories. Having it show up in “The Mother” segment regarding Krista allows for incestuous rape to be a motif that first was presented in “The Stranger” segment as a possible motive for Arden murdering her brother. However, the earlier segment is ambiguous—we aren’t certain that Arden murdered her brother, and even if she did we aren’t certain that incestuous rape was involved. The ambiguity of the earlier use of the motif makes it an effective element. However, in “The Mother” there is no ambiguity. We might have a case of Rosetta being an unreliable narrator, but her reliability does not seem questionable. Thus, we are prone to take Rosetta’s claim as accurate—that her stepfather was “sticking his dick in her.” The overuse of such unambiguous incestuous rape turns the plot point into a cultural cliché and lessens its impact. After decades of overuse, the Kairos for unambiguous incestuous rape has passed. Instead, storytellers need to use one of the other reasons a teenage girl might run away from home—such as was used in the excellent Hardcore written and directed by Paul Schrader and starring George C. Scott way back in 1979. However, I will forgive The Dead Girl its one cliché because it’s outweighed by other elements in this otherwise essentially avant-garde film. Of course, the devastating news of the clichéd motive for Krista running away from home destroys Melora who was already dying inside for the past 13 years when she didn’t know why her daughter left or what exactly had happened to her. Thus, with the final revelation of Krista’s life, Melora becomes another “dead girl.” However, it doesn’t take long for Melora to be resurrected. All it takes is for her to learn from Rosetta that she has a granddaughter, Ashley, who is living with a woman who takes care of what appears to be nearly a dozen children in some sort of underground childcare center for prostitutes and drug addicts. Melora also learns she will have to buy Ashley from the woman—for $200, which is all Melora has with her. Of course, Ashley looks like Krista did when she was that age, so part of Melora’s resurrection is the realization that she will have a second chance to raise “her daughter” (which is also sort of a cliché at this point, but let’s pretend it isn’t). The Dead Girl Obviously, the final segment of the film focuses on Krista herself—which means it’s a flashback that takes place before “The Stranger.” Ironically, Krista is the one female character (including Ashley) who is not already a “dead girl” when we meet her (if we don’t count meeting Krista as an actual corpse in “The Stranger”). Instead, at the beginning of her segment, Krista has already resurrected herself to some extent from the dead girl she was following her life as a teenage victim of incestuous rape, prostitution, and drug addiction. Krista is definitely fucked up, as she is once again a junky prostitute—but at least she isn’t dead inside. Her love for Ashley drives her with a kind of inner naïve joy. Even though she is upset about not being able to see her daughter regularly, Krista is happy to think she will see Ashley in a few hours. Much of the segment involves Krista trying to find a ride to Norwalk so she can be with Ashley as she wakes up on the morning of her birthday. Krista intends to surprise her daughter with chocolate chip pancakes and a large white rabbit. However, through a series of unfortunate events, all of Krista’s rides fall through. At the end, she has to try to hitch a ride. Fortunately, a seemingly kind man stops for her and agrees to take her to Norwalk . . . a ride that will result in Krista ending up as “The Dead Girl” rather than as just another “dead girl.” Of course, there is no resurrection or redemption for Krista after her fateful ride with Carl. However, through Ashley, a type of symbolic resurrection is evident. Krista even tells Carl that Ashley looks like her . . . only prettier. Overall, The Dead Girl is about a modern world that can leave many of us emotionally dead inside—cut off from each other through a variety of circumstances and our own inability to take actions that will connect us to each other in relationships (to use the “R-word”) that provide sustenance for living rather than in acquaintances that are formed merely as a result of our continued existence. The film is a story about the dead girl that is in each of us at times, and about the ways we can find to resurrect our own lives if we have the courage and desire that Krista showed at the end. Finally, if you study the images I have included in this essay on the film, you will notice the visual motif of negative space and the effects created by lighting—images that create an almost chiaroscuro effect that underscores the dichotomy between life and death, but with so much negative space that surrounds each of us. Despite me “spoiling” many of the various plot points, The Dead Girl is a film worth seeing as a contemporary masterpiece of modern cinema. See larger image The Dead Girl New From: $1.65 USD In Stock Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Jack I notice you mention providing spoilers yet you never state that Ruth’s husband is the killer. Was this deliberate? When can we expect more entries from this column?