The Importance of Outliers
Or: Why We Need Someone Championing 'The Dead Girl' and Other Half-Forgotten Movies
Where do good movies go when they die? What becomes of the worthwhile films that, for one reason or another, never get the attention they deserve, those that receive low-key releases and fail to build up the sort of critical consensus that leads to awards talk but deserve better fates than to be forgotten? It’s a problem that’s been with movies from the beginning. The industry has always attracted more talent and released more films than could ever find a cultural foothold. In the stark terms of economics textbooks, it’s a business designed for overproduction. Movies get thrown against the wall. Some stick. Others don’t. In the process, some very good films end up not lost but pushed far to the margins where only the most intrepid explorers can find them. It’s always been that way, but that doesn’t make it fair.
I was reminded of the problem — and the only possible solution to it I know of — over the weekend when Jonathan Rosenbaum published a list of his 50 favorite films of the 21st century on his website. For those who don’t know, Rosenbaum is a longtime critic, probably best known for his long run at the Chicago Reader and handful of books (including the invaluable Midnight Movies, which he co-authored with J. Hoberman). Rosenbaum is a writer of strong opinions, eloquent arguments, and somewhat unpredictable taste. He’s always worth reading, even if you find yourself frequently disagreeing with him, as I often have.
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It’s a good list, in part because it’s eclectic . My own list for the last 22 years would contain some of the same films but not many. (A.I. and Certified Copy for sure. Paterson and Goodbye, Dragon Inn most likely. Maybe a few others.) And that’s what makes it valuable. Someone needs to be banging the drum for the greatness of Spanglish and Monte Hellman’s little-seen swan song Road to Nowhere.
One title made me snap to attention: The Dead Girl, a film I liked quite a bit when it was released in 2006, giving it a positive review when I reviewed it for The A.V. Club ahead of its brief, under-the-radar end-of-the year theatrical run. It’s a movie I’ve thought about from time to time since then. But, until I read Rosenbaum’s list, I thought I was the only one.
An unapologetically sad, grim film, The Dead Girl is the second feature written and directed by Karen Moncrieff, an actress who made her feature debut as a filmmaker with the very good coming-of-age drama Blue Car in 2002. For her follow-up, she took on some familiar material but approached it from a series of unfamiliar angles, dividing it into five chapters, each told from the perspective of a female character who is usually found at the margins of the sort of story at the film’s core.
The dead girl of the title is Krista Kutcher (Brittany Murphy) and she’s already dead when we first see her in the film’s opening scene. A prostitute murdered by a serial killer (Nick Searcy), she could be a minor character in any number of thrillers or weekly TV procedurals. Instead, Moncrieff follows the effects of Krista’s death. In the first of the five sequences that make up the film, a repressed woman named Arden (Toni Collette) finds the body and the discovery seems to unlock something inside her. In the second, and best, story a mortician named Leah (Rose Byrne) sees a familiar birthmark on Krista’s corpse and suspects it might be the sister who disappeared years before, an event that’s come to define both Leah’s life and the lives of her parents (Mary Steenburgen and Bruce Davison). Subsequent chapters draw closer to Krista herself before Moncrieff depicts her final days.
The Dead Girl picked up a couple of Independent Spirit Awards nominations but otherwise largely got lost in the end-of-the-year shuffle in 2006. In some ways, I get this. It’s an often gutting film that, by design, offers no sense of closure or resolution. In fact, it seems defiantly opposed to the very idea of closure and resolution, and that gives it a sense of integrity that a more reassuring sort of film could never achieve.
Rewatching it now, I’m still impressed with it. And even if I wouldn’t name it one of the best films this century, I’m glad someone else has. Critical consensus isn’t just boring, it’s dangerous. To see the same films lauded everywhere isn’t merely predictable; it fences out too many films simply because not enough critics rallied around them. Rotten Tomatoes has its virtues, but its binary fresh/rotten system and the percentages attached to movies that are then recirculated everywhere from Google results to TV listings is one of the lousiest developments ever to surface in film criticism. Never mind the arguments or individual voices or nuanced judgments. Just give the people a number.
It’s a hard world for little movies, and in the years since 2006, it’s just gotten harder. With the explosion of streaming services and an escalating demand for content — a horrible word, but that’s where we are now — it seems like there are more movies now than ever. And, as ever, a lot of them aren’t really worth anyone’s time. But some are, and some inevitably get pushed aside when they shouldn’t. It’s those films that need critical champions who don’t care what others think the most.
A few weeks back we got a letter at The Next Picture Show, the podcast Scott and I co-host with Genevieve Koski and Tasha Robinson, asking if we felt the need to revise our opinions to be more in touch with popular taste. The tone was not nice, as if we were stubbornly, irresponsibly refusing to change with the times. It was kind of insulting but also, I’m afraid, echoes a common sentiment about allegedly out-of-touch critics who keep praising difficult movies and dare to suggest there’s more to moviegoing than the MCU. (I, by and large, like the MCU. Spare me any outrage. I just don’t like what it represents and the options it has shut down.)
Give me more of them, as long as they’re worth reading. And, please, give me less of the traffic cop concern trolling when a critic gets too contrarian. And give me more movies like The Dead Girl, compelling, unusual, and committed movies that don’t fit into easy definitions and inspire impassioned defenses, and even sometimes unexpectedly land on best-of-the-century lists because of it. If that’s what being out of touch is about, being in touch is overrated. Let’s call it a 2.5 out of 5, which would put it at 50% and this squarely in “rotten” territory.
Postscript: The answer to the question of where this particularly good movie went when it died is Starz, which is at the moment the only place you can watch The Dead Girl, though it’s also available on DVD.
The link to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s supposed website goes to a Facebook login page, at least for me.
This is exactly what I am here for. I really liked this.