Karen Moncrieff's The Dead Girl is an omnibus study of the murder of a young prostitute, whose corpse is discovered in a barren field by a lonely woman, Arden (Toni Collette). Her abusive mother (Piper Laurie) warns her against becoming involved, but Arden can take no more of her mistreatment and leaves home. This opening episode leads to the next, involving Leah (Rose Byrne), a forensics student who, as she works on the corpse, realizes that she herself may be the victim's sister, having had a sibling who disappeared mysteriously years ago. In the following sequence, called "The Wife," Ruth (Mary Beth Hurt) has cause to suspect her infuriating, often-absent husband Carl (Nick Searcy) of being the murderer when she discovers scary evidence in a storage unit they own. In "The Mother," Melora (Marcia Gay Harden) searches for her runaway daughter and meets Rosetta (Kerry Washington), a prostitute who roomed with the girl. The film ends with "The Dead Girl," Krista (Brittany Murphy), on a violent, volatile trajectory to her own doom.

The Dead Girl initially seems to be a piece of very heavy, uninspired weather, some misguided feminist attempt to humanize the serial killing of young prostitutes. The slow-paced opening sequence is almost unwatchably dreary, and plays like a repeat of Carrie, with Collette doing her drab-loser specialty that is fast becoming a cliché and Piper Laurie reprising her monstrous Carrie mama role to near-comic effect. (You almost expect her to say, "They're all gonna laugh at you!") The scenes with Leah are too pat, with the corpse of her perhaps-sister coincidentally popping up in her forensics class, not helped by banal passages involving Leah's mother (Mary Steenbergen) in heavy denial regarding her missing daughter's demise.

But then the film picks up speed and interest, due largely to a host of strong performances by some fiercely committed actresses. Hurt is unrecognizable and unforgettable (and unexpectedly funny, too), making you understand how her husband can't stand to be around her, while you simultaneously sympathize with her. Searcy is also very good in a hellishly difficult part, a total weakling somehow possessed of an iron will when it comes to his selfish desires. Harden, whose intense energy can somehow make her seem seriously miscast (as in her unaccountably praised performance in Pollock), brings the gift of a considerable humanity to the right role, which she does here beautifully. Washington has a blazing street authenticity, and Murphy is simply phenomenal.

Hollywood tried to shoehorn this actress into clichéd starlet-princess roles as in Just Married and Uptown Girls that were an uneasy fit, so it's a relief to see Murphy, a true character actor if e'er there was one, sink her choppers into a role that fully captures her talent for playing misfits and neurotics, as in Clueless, Don't Say a Word and Girl, Interrupted. She is ferociously alive here, recalling Bette Davis in her great embattled youth and how she could electrify a film, but Murphy is able to go much farther, and is fully empathic and heartbreaking.