January 9th, 2007
This film by Karen Moncrieff is told as a series of five connected short stories. In each an encounter with a dead girl forces the characters to choose between living and dying.
with Toni Collette (Little Miss Sunshine)
The repressed Arden (Collette) finds the body. The ensuing fame brings her to the attention of scary grocery clerk Rudy (Giovanni Ribisi), a student of serial killers and their victims. Rudy could be the killer but Arden goes on a date with him in the desert, and as a result she makes a big change in her life.
Rudy wants to kiss Arden on their date, but she pulls away. “I don’t have to tie you up, do I?” he jokes. “Maybe you should,” she says. “Should what?” “Tie me up.”
This screenshot, showing Arden on the morning after her date, mimics the posture of the dead girl. But Arden has chosen to live. She tells Rudy, “I don’t want to talk about serial killers anymore.” This part of the movie is very dark, but it is strangely optimistic as well.
with Rose Byrne (Wicker Park)
Leah (Byrne), a depressed graduate student in forensics, performs an autopsy on the dead girl and comes to believe she is her long lost sister.
This belief sets her free from the hold of her obsessive family, especially her mother (Mary Steenburgen), who is determined to search for the lost girl forever.
Leah lightens up so much that she tries to have some fun for a change, even hooking up with nice-guy colleague Derek (James Franco). She chooses life in defiance of her clinical depression and her mother’s will for death.
There is a twist: the body is not Leah’s sister. Even so, this part of the film is moving and hopeful.
with Mary Beth Hurt (Interiors)
This segment reveals the identity of the killer. It is Carl (Nick Searcy), husband of Ruth (Mary Beth Hurt). Ruth discovers evidence that Carl has killed more than one young woman on his solitary road trips through the countryside.
Here we are in River’s Edge country, as Ruth’s timidity and fear of being alone prevent her from reporting the crimes. She gets as far as the street outside the sheriff’s office but does not go in. In the end she burns the evidence and life goes on without any change.
In this part of the film the characters do not choose life. It is the least likeable of the five parts.
with Marcia Gay Harden (Mystic River)
In this segment Melora (Harden), the dead girl’s mother, tries to come to terms with her daughter’s life and death.
Melora tries to befriend Krista’s roommate, Rosetta (Kerry Washington), to learn more about her life and final days, but soon learns that she will have to pay Rosetta for her time. Krista and Rosetta were crack-addicted prostitutes living together in a cheap motel.
Learning that Krista had a daughter, Ashley, who did not live with her, Melora persuades Rosetta to take her to her. Melora takes the child away with her to raise.
This part of the movie is heartbreaking, as Melora is forced to come to terms with the life her runaway daughter lived. The taking of the child seems profoundly optimistic, an attempt to make amends and build life out of death.
The Dead Girl
with Brittany Murphy (8 Mile)
In the fifth and last segment, the movie flips into the past to show the dead girl’s final hours. Krista (Murphy) is desperate to get to Norwalk to give her daughter Ashley a birthday present. As she says, “Sometimes you should just get the thing that you want on your actual birthday.”
Krista’s friend Tarlow (James Brolin), a swaggering biker type, agrees to take her to “fucking Norwalk” in exchange for a free blow job. Krista is thrilled, but Tarlow lets her down.
Krista takes off for Norwalk on a borrowed motorcycle which breaks down on the roadside, and then she starts hitchhiking. Soon she meets Carl, who will be happy to drive her to Norwalk, and the story begins.
This film is packed with symbols.
As Arden is primping for her date the camera lingers on a dripping faucet, which stands in for the dire serpent of knowledge and lust. Certainly that is how Arden’s mother regards this date.
A necklace Arden finds near the dead girl’s body reads “Taken,” and it has strands of the dead girl’s hair on it. Taken by what? By love? By the stranger? By death? You choose.
In a somewhat heavy-handed scene, on her way to the sheriff’s office Ruth passes a young woman whose car has broken down. This could be Carl’s next victim, but Ruth does not stop to help.
Ruth has a pet rabbit, a seemingly irrelevant touch. I think it is the big-eared observer who knows things, but who like Ruth is too timid to tell what she knows. (Or else it’s just a rabbit.)
When Melora takes Ashley away, we see an appealing image of the hummingbird ornament hanging from Melora’s rear-view mirror. But the bird faces backwards, perhaps to suggest that taking care of the present can also heal the past.
Some of the characters’ names are symbolic. (Maybe they all are, but I don’t get them all.) For example, “Melora” is an anagram for “L’Amore,” which of course means “Love.” Similarly, “Tarlow” is easily reshuffled into “Low rat.” “Krista” is obviously “Christ,” the sacrifice, and perhaps “Ashley” is the one who rises from the ashes. “Rosetta” (after the Rosetta stone) holds the key to understanding Krista - that is, the fact that she was abused as a child and that she had a child of her own.
Other names are obviously Biblical, but I don’t get the significance. I don’t understand Leah and Ruth. If you get it please leave a comment!
Well, it’s not a date movie. Unless of course your date is a film student or a vampire. This is rough stuff. I like it a lot. It’s a bit in the genre of Sherrybaby - a movie about a bad girl with some strikes against her, who if nothing else wants to be a good mom to her little daughter - but it is much more ambitious than Sherrybaby.
Another reviewer has remarked that this kind of anthology structure tends to encourage over-acting, as each actor tries to “hit the ground acting” for their brief time onscreen. This is a fair comment. Toni Collette especially, although I like her and her performance, does seem a bit over the top.
I like Brittany Murphy. She reminds me of a girl I once knew. But lately she seems to be making a career out of playing crack-whore bad girls. I’d like to see her in different kinds of roles as well.
Some will find the symbolism in this film heavy-handed, but I’m just happy to find any. I even accept the big-eared bunny. Others will be oblivious to the symbolism, and that’s ok too.
I recommend this movie without reservations. That doesn’t mean I think everybody’s going to like it. I like all movies that have serious intentions and that go for the jugular, and this one absolutely does.
I keep forgetting that everybody wants to see the dead body. Here you go.