With all the various permutations of CSI and Law & Order filling the airwaves, no one need be ashamed about feeling bored with corpses, killers, and all the usual elements that come with their stories. The murder mystery has infinite variations, but popular entertainment seems determined to challenge the definition of the word "infinite." No stranger to similar shows during her days as an actress, writer-director Karen Moncrieff seems pretty bored with murder mysteries too. The Dead Girl features a dead body and a killer, but it's more concerned with what goes on around the meeting of victim and perpetrator, both before and after the killing. All murders kind of look the same; it's what surrounds them that's interesting.
A collection of five interlaced stories, the film opens with Toni Collette stumbling on a badly mutilated corpse. A quiet woman whose life is bounded by the needs of a cruel, invalid mother (Piper Laurie, in a virtual reprise of her Carrie role), Collette nonetheless takes a little trophy from the body. Soon she'll use it as part of an odd, life-changing flirtation with a creepy grocery-store clerk (Giovanni Ribisi). The body takes on other meanings for Rose Byrne, a coroner-in-training who's long lived in the shadow of a missing sister; Marcia Gay Harden, a mother searching for her daughter; and Mary Beth Hurt, who never lays eyes on the corpse, though her life is changed by it anyway. The final segment introduces the victim, played with unexpected heartbreaking depth by Brittany Murphy.
As with her debut feature, Blue Car, Moncrieff treats sensational material with a disarming matter-of-factness that ultimately makes a deeper impression. Rather than thinning out the material, her stories build on one another until the film becomes less about those who kill and those who get killed than the way life can drag those we love away from us when we least expect it, and the way love keeps people close that life should push away. It's a crime-scene investigation that reveals details no microscope could capture.