Cinema Signal:

The Creation of a Serial Killer
by Jack Olsen
. "The Dead Girl"

A single act of murder affects many more people than we generally think about. With an entirely fresh approach to the murder mystery, writer-director Karen Moncrieff strips away the layers of the crime in an ingeniously plotted, separately titled series of short stories, all related in some way to the crime. The result is a literary tour de force with peformances to match.

The first story is somewhat misleadingly titled "The Stranger." Arden (Toni Collette), a haggard, worn-looking woman, strolls alone in a field on the outskirts of Los Angeles. She pauses for a sandwich and continues her walk. She suddenly stops, spotting something terrible on her path. The body of a mutilated young girl.

Returning home, we understand what drives her to long, lonely walks. Her mother (Piper Laurie), a mostly bed-bound invalid is a shrew who demands her daughter's constant attention and spares no insult to demean her and keep her under her thumb. This horror of a human being blows a gasket when law-enforcement are all over the grounds investigating the crime scene.

Newspaper coverage leads to Arden becoming a local celebrity, recognized by every stranger. When Rudy, a clerk in the supermarket spots her, sexually repressed Arden responds to his attentions despite the apparent danger posed by this tattooed stranger.

"The Sister" takes us to Leah (Rose Byrne), a forensic student who, upon examining the corpse, becomes convinced that it's her long lost sister Jenny. But her mother Beverly (Mary Steenburgen) strongly disagrees, convinced that Jenny is still alive.

As the stories progress, they get closer and closer to friends, relatives and the circumstances leading to murder. Of these, "The Mother" is the best developed and an emotional pillar of the drama. When the girl is identified as Krista (Brittany Murphy), a runaway turned prostitute, Melora (Marcia Gay Harden) her mother, sets out to learn all she can about her daughter's life, starting at her last known address in a cheap hotel. She meets hard-nosed Rosetta (Kerry Washington), Krista's roommate and lover who discloses that Melora has a grandchild.

By now, we're ready for the horrific detail of serial killer Carl (Nick Searcy), with enough clues to tell us what this guy's been doing when he goes "for a drive" and doesn't want his wife along.

By the time we get to Krista's story we're primed for the worst. On this day in her life she's dependent on Tarlow (Josh Brolin), her couldn't-care-less pimp, to drive her to a nearby town to see her daughter. His promise meant nothing and she winds up hitchhiking. When she gets into Carl's car, well...nothing more need be said.

Except, of course, for the quality of the filmmaking team, from Michael Grady's cinematography to the fine ensemble cast. Of particular notability for me was Kerry Washington, whose cold aloofness of a prostitute melts into a vision of what parental love can be in the presence of Harden's grieving and dedicated mother. But this is, admittedly, only one valuable coin in a treaure chest of performance art.

The sheer originality of a murder mystery written in this way is a very wily concept and should merit the movie, and Moncrieff, a great deal of praise. Its sordid elements will help draw the audiences but the fascination will not be for anything scandalous or for exploitation purposes. It is a daring and effective approach, wholly inventive even when compared to certain recent films employing a similar technique of episodic relationships, "Syriana," and "Babel," most notably.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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