Synopsis – When Mari Gilbert’s daughter disappears, police inaction drives her own investigation into the gated Long Island community where Shannan was last seen. Her search brings attention to over a dozen murdered sex workers.
My Take – Yes, I too am a part of the audience who has developed a pop culture obsession with true crime, and in order to feed into the (UN) healthy addiction, I decided to dive into this Netflix original, without any clue of the story behind it, or any previous knowledge that it was based on true events. And honestly I was left very surprised by the results.
Though most stories involving murders tend to center on how a case is solved. Who committed the crime? What evidence was found? What actually happened? Netflix’s new thriller, which is based upon Robert Kolker’s non-fiction, Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, and his investigation of the Long Island serial killer, chases the same questions, it does with a different end point in mind.
Focusing instead on the growing calls to decriminalize sex workers, who tend to face discrimination especially from the police in their time of need, often treated as runaways. And when they turn up dead, the police and the public frequently shrug, as if their work means they had it coming.
The media too contributes to the blame the victim mentality, describing them chiefly as by their profession, instead of their other roles as parents, offspring and siblings, and use their deaths as a warning to be good. With this being her narrative feature debut, documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus outright rejects this notion and instead asks us to reconsider our preconceived ideas of these women and their work.
While director Garbus offers some most shocking facts of the case, like the body count, the method of murder, and the connections between the victims, but primarily, this docudrama is focused on the mothers and sisters whose worlds were shattered first by murder then by the indifference of a system that treated their girls like trash.
Sure, one might be left tad unsatisfied towards the end as the mystery till date remained unsolved. But, if you are looking for a well-narrated story from a different stand point, I do recommend this one a watch during the current lock down stage.
The story follows Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan), a construction worker and a single mother of three daughters. While her oldest Shannan, a sex worker, has been living away for some time now, Mari still continues her struggles to make ends meet for her other two, Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie) and Sarra (Oona Laurence). During one such instances, Mari calls up Shannan asking for some money to help her out, to which she agrees and promises to bring it along with her when she drop by for dinner the next day.
But when doesn’t show up, Mari is just hurt, and not overly apprehensive about her daughter’s safety, that is until she receives a mysterious call from a doctor, who thinks Shannan might be in trouble, and when Sherre informs her that Shannan’s boyfriend too called asking about her whereabouts, Mari is spurs into action and heads to the police station.
Apparently, Shannan was last seen at a gated community in Long Island, screaming and running down the quiet street in terror. And when she dialed 911 for help, the police arrived an hour later to find no trace of her. Due to the inaction, Mari takes it upon herself to push hard on the police to do something and investigate, who only realize the serious nature of the case when they end finding four or more bodies of similarly profiled sex workers, in the same area, all believed to be murdered by the Long Island Serial Killer.
The film is an effective true story thriller due to the nonchalant nature that director Liz Garbus and screenwriter Michael Werwie chose to focus on. By veering into the humanity of this story, the film is able to express the horror without getting too ghoulish. Unlike many true-crime offerings, the film rejects recounting the grisliest bits as if they are treasure to relish.
As I mentioned above, instead of focusing on the killer and the police officers who slowly hunt for him, the film dials back the suspense and increases the uncomfortable tension by staying with Mari and the other mothers of those lost girls. While the proceedings may be difficult to watch, full of fear, frustration, heartbreak and hopelessness, it’s worth the emotional effort, and a solid work from a filmmaker who has made 29 different documentaries.
The film makes for a distressing watch as it reveals all angles within this true disappearance case, but keeps audiences invested by making them connect with the characters. However, there is a shocking scene near the end of the film that might not have been completely necessary to include, as it is likely to make audiences feel more than a little bit uncomfortable.
The entire purpose of the film is to emphasize on how women’s stories are dismissed and neglected. It also sheds light on how people who are not so privileged aren’t given equal consideration like the members of the upper crust. As it’s not about how many women were killed by the Long Island Serial Killer, but also of how many more women who are still dead and undiscovered.
Most importantly, director Liz Garbus doesn’t disrespect these women by making each a shining example of motherhood or womanhood. The script paints them as complicated figures, who are loyal, loving, and determined, but also bitter, broken, and impulsive. Yeah, they might be labeled as bad moms with their bad girl daughters who did sex work and maybe drugs. But they are so much more than these limiting, shaming labels allow. Yet each moment that reflects the messiness of their lives makes them human, and reminds us so were their girls. All deserve our empathy, and not just a segment on the evening news.
However, I too, like many other reviewers had an issue with how it mainly directs on only one mother’s fury and grit to find out what happened to her missing daughter, and found that her demonstration of that anger against the system unnecessary and a little selfish. As a result of which it felt as if it was missing some pieces of the puzzle, as not just the Gilberts, but every victim and their families deserved better.
Performance wise, Amy Ryan is simply ferocious here. Without any loud monologues and physicality, Ryan just digs into the psychological torment the crime waged on her soul and family. Thomasin McKenzie also gave an equally commendable performance as the younger daughter and is impressive inside out.
Gabriel Byrne too is very effective as the lead badge in charge, the man who feels the brunt of Mari’s rage. In other roles, Oona Laurence, Lola Kirke, Miriam Shor, Dean Winters, Kevin Corrigan and Reed Birney are also very effective. On the whole, ‘Lost Girls’ is a devastating well narrated true crime thriller that deserves a watch for its unique take and Amy Ryan‘s award-worthy performance.
Directed – Liz Garbus
Rated – R
Run Time – 95 minutes