Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Dead Girl, or On Remaining Misinformed

Beautiful, unsettling, near-relentlessly grim, The Dead Girl gives a million different meanings to “missing” - and of the pic’s many dead girls, only two are literal corpses. But nonetheless, as a sober meditation on the phenomenon often referred to as Missing White Woman Syndrome, the film does little to temper that phrase’s inherent cynicism.

Not that it’s not clever – at times, the film’s emotional turns of the screw are downright ingenious. The beauty, though, is in the heartbreak of words unsaid, the things seen that can’t be unseen and yet must remain unspoken.

Masterfully – there’s no other word for it – spiralling ever-closer to the last hours of Brittany Murphy’s titular pretty corpse, the film progresses through melancholy curio, into heartbreaking irony, and winds up managing to wring hope from a scenario fair drenched in despair.

The most ethereal chapter belongs to Collette’s hopeless shut-in; the cleverest (and saddest) to Byrne’s desperate Quixote; the darkest the film will get without putting a foot wrong will be Hurt’s doomed duel with escape-velocity, before Harden will round off the tale of Murphy’s lonesome existence.

Would that it ended there: after three acts of such well-turned elegy, you feel that looking the film’s hidden demons in the face may be too much to bear. It’s unfortunate, then, that the monster behind the door turns out to be somewhat pantomime: Murphy, brave and honest as she may be, just can’t bring her story anything approaching the wonderful pathos of those she leaves behind. It’s just not within the material.

It would be easy to twist a phrase and call this despair-porn: every faded surface is lovingly shot, ever despairing glance lulled into perfection by the understated alt-country soundtrack. That would be easy, except that everything else – the unboxing of the Russian-doll plot, the perfectly-fulfilled characters, the subtle rhythms of motif and symmetry – give the story such weight and power that that despair never becomes self-serving.

It’s a film that asks a million questions, a character-study in murder-mystery costume. And yet its biggest failing is easy to pinpoint: that the one promised answer on which it seeks to hang all its lasting musings, is the only one it tries – and fails – to provide.

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