"The Dead Girl" | Haunting tales of wounded women

Three years ago, writer/director Karen Moncrieff made an auspicious feature debut with "Blue Car," a haunting, beautifully acted tale of a teenage girl's relationship with a teacher. Now she returns with "The Dead Girl," and while the artful new film underlines Moncrieff's skill, it may have trouble finding an audience. Made up of five interconnected stories all having to do with a young woman's abandoned corpse, it's almost unbearably grim. Watching it is a painful experience, and many ticket buyers may understandably opt for something simpler and cheerier.

But those who pass on "The Dead Girl" are missing something. Moncrieff has assembled a remarkable (and mostly female) cast, and there are moments in this film that are as powerful as anything currently in theaters. Mary Beth Hurt gives a blazing, angry performance as a bitter woman married to a man who harbors a dark secret; at the end of her segment, she starts a fire, and it pales in comparison to her own white-hot rage. Marcia Gay Harden, whispery yet determined, affectingly plays a bereaved mother who learns to her surprise that she has a grandchild; the little girl seems to bring light into the film. Kerry Washington takes the small role of a prostitute and makes of it something heartbreaking; a fragile creature forced to become unbreakable.

Shot in moody, quiet blues and grays and performed with unflinching honesty, "The Dead Girl" forces us to think about murder, battered women, abusive parents, grief and loss. It's not light entertainment, but it's powerful filmmaking. Its tattered little pieces of lives haunted me, long after I'd seen it. Moncrieff's work may not be to everyone's taste (it'll be interesting to see if her next film is equally dark), but her talent is undeniable.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Movie review 3 stars

"The Dead Girl," with Toni Collette, Rose Byrne, Mary Beth Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Brittany Murphy, Kerry Washington, Piper Laurie, Giovanni Ribisi, James Franco. Written and directed by Karen Moncrieff.

93 minutes. Rated R for language, grisly images and sexuality/nudity. Varsity.