Karen Moncrieff makes good on the promise shown in her excellent 2002 debut, BLUE CAR, with a potent and superbly acted cycle of five short films about women who, though strangers to one another, find themselves at varying degrees of separation from the same murdered girl. In "The Stranger," Arden (Toni Collette), a depressed California woman who cares for her abusive, invalid mother (Piper Laurie, in full-blown Carrie's-mother mode), discovers the girl's naked, mutilated corpse in a clump of dry desert brush. But before returning home and calling the police, Arden does something unsettling: She removes the blood-caked gold charm necklace that reads "Taken" from the girl's neck. The ensuing news coverage brings Arden a kind of morbid celebrity and the attention of creepy, serial-killer aficionado Rudy (Giovanni Ribisi), a supermarket stock boy who woos Arden to get all the details of her grisly find. In the segment titled "The Sister," Leah (Rose Byrne), a young forensics grad student, believes the still unidentified body could be that of her missing sister, Jenny. Since Jenny's disappearance 15 years earlier, Leah's mother (Mary Steenburgen) has made the search for her daughter the primary focus of family life, and she continues to cling to the hope that she'll one day be found. Leah, on the other hand, hopes the corpse in the brush turns out to be her sister so she can at last reclaim her life and her family's attention. In the third film, "The Wife," Ruth (Mary Beth Hurt), the lonely wife of a storage-facility manager, makes a disturbing discovery. Once again left alone by her husband, Carl (Nick Searcy), who goes out for "drives" for days at a time, Ruth finds that a storage shed he'd listed as unoccupied isn't empty at all, but contains what appear to be the detritus of other women's lives: purses, wallets, stained articles of clothing. Remembering what she's read about a string of missing women, Ruth decides upon a disturbing course of action. In the most powerful film, "The Mother," Melora (Marcia Gay Harden) arrives in L.A. after the police identify the body in the brush as that of her runaway daughter, Krista (Brittany Murphy). Bonding with Krista's roommate Rosetta (Kerry Washington), Melora learns the sordid details of Krista's life as a drug-addicted prostitute, and comes to terms with what drove Krista from her home. The closing segment, "The Dead Girl," belongs to Krista. Told entirely in flashback, we learn the sad series of events that led to her fateful encounter with her killer. The power of each individual performance is obvious (Hurt and Harden are particularly good), but it's easy to underestimate Moncrieff's subtle skill as a writer and observer of human nature. Her characters are alternately released, destroyed and even strengthened by the senseless tragedy of Krista's death. All behave in ways that may at first seem incomprehensible, but through Moncrieff's expert storytelling, each woman is finally rendered merely human.
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