Dir/scr: Karen Moncrieff. US. 2006. 93mins.

The Dead Girl, Karen Moncrieff's thoroughly downbeat follow-up to herwell-received debut Blue Car, may beatmospherically creepy and have some good acting by respected names, but itsanguished, dysfunctional characters are so extreme that the film slips intounintentional self-parody.

Theatrical prospects don'tseem good for First Look's late-December release, which had its world premiereat the AFI Film Festival. It might have worked better as a dark murder thrillera la The Vanishing, but Moncrieff - not much interested in suspense - instead optsfor a Crash-like,overlapping-narrative ensemble piece about the sadder aspects of the humancondition.

Primarily about the ways inwhich women suffer, and working as a showcase for actresses young and old, itis best compared to better films such as Rebecca Miller's Personal Velocity and Rodrigo Garcia's Nine Lives. Since neither of those cracked $1m worldwide (Velocity was only released in the US), despite prestigious casts, Dead Girl has little chance of doingbetter overseas.

The film starts promisingly,in grisly fashion, with the drab and severely depressed Arden (Collette)discovering a dead girl's body in a field near her home. Close-ups show theblood and cuts and the insects crawling across the corpse as she stands muteand slow to react: the remains are obviously that of a murder victim.

When the police turn up, Arden'sshrewish invalid mother (Laurie) screams at her for bringing "thesebloodsuckers" onto the property. It's right at this early scene that the movieloses its credibility as an involving, naturalistic narrative and becomes puremelodramatic affectation. What, realistically, is the daughter supposed to do'Not report a crime' Let the body sit there for eternity' Repeatedly as thestory evolves, characters at key moments continue to act in ways that defyrational explanation and as a result play poorly on the screen.

The film subsequentlyunfolds in chapters labelled The Sister,The Wife, The Mother and The Victim.All are filmed in a way that heightens the dark, grimy environment of sprawlingLA and the ugliness of artificial light inside peoples' apartments, motel roomsand homes.

A virtually unrecognisableMary Beth Hurt plays Ruth, an aging and virtually abandoned wife constantlyfurious at the way her seemingly harassed husband (Nick Searcy, who commendablyunderplays his role) keeps disappearing for long drives.

Marcia Gay Harden, as themurder victim's sorrowful mother, carefully controls her performance - eventhough it involves much tears - as she confronts the young prostitute(Washington) with whom her daughter lived.

But the most surprisinglyeffective portrayal, as well as the only one that is exciting to watch, isBrittany Murphy as Krista, the victim. An energetic, erotically charged,seductive-eyed actress who's been slumming in a lot of star-vehicle formulaicfilms since her great performance in 2002's 8Mile, she here channels Courtney Love as a trashy but endearing hookersashaying around LA with profane vivacity. There's too little of her in The Dead Girl to bring thispretentiously sombre movie to life - but what there is should be enough to gether cast in some exciting, challenging roles in future.

Production companies/backers
Lakeshore Entertainment
Pitbull Productions
First Look Pictures

International sales
Lakeshore Entertainment

US distribution
First Look Pictures

Executive producers
David Scott Rubin
Eric Reid
Terry A McKay
Temple Williams

Richard Wright
Eric Karten
Kevin Turen
Tom Rosenberg
Henry Winterstern
Gary Lucchesi

Michael Grady

Alex Romano
Toby Yates

Production design
Kristan Andrews

Adam Gorgoni

Main cast
Brittany Murphy
Toni Collette
Piper Laurie
Giovanni Ribisi
Rose Byrne
Mary Steenburgen
Bruce Davison
Josh Brolin
James Franco
Mary Beth Hurt
Nick Searcy
Marcia Gay Harden
Kerry Washington