Seven months after Shannan Gilbert went missing, a body was found on a desolate stretch of a Long Island parkway. It wasn’t Shannan’s body, and neither was the next one or the next one or even the next one; it wasn’t until authorities had discovered ten bodies on that same stretch of Ocean Parkway that Shannan was found. By then, her mother Mari had already spent months knocking on doors, imploring the police to investigate, and bonding with the other women left in the wake of what would end up being one of America’s most mysterious serial killers. It’s the kind of ripped-from-the-headlines drama that seems like a natural fit for two-time Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus, who opted to turn the material into not another doc, but an unsettling narrative feature. Garbus, who has long been motivated by stories about remarkable women and horrible crimes, makes a strong showing with “Lost Girls,” her first narrative feature in her decades-long career.
Adapted from Robert Kolker’s book by “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” screenwriter Michael Werwie, another filmmaker might have balked at telling a story that’s dedicated to unveiling the truth, but is entirely hamstrung by the harsh reality that it doesn’t exist (at least not yet). Kolker’s book presented a number of possibilities for the identity of the so-called Long Island serial killer (LISK), one person believed to have murdered 16 to 20 people (mostly female sex workers) over the course of two decades, but criminal charges have yet to be brought against any one of them. Garbus’ film eventually zeroes in on a single suspect, though she and Werwie handle their apparent theories with the same amount of grace as Kolker’s lyrical, haunting book.
Star Amy Ryan, however, is less restrained in her accusations, burning through the screen in one of her most ferocious and furious performances yet. In the film, as in life, it was Mari Gilbert who refused to give in to uncaring and disinterested cops, many of whom rebuffed her demands for assistance in locating her missing daughter, becoming the fiercest advocate for Shannan and the many other women left in LISK’s wake.
Garbus’ film makes the unassailable argument that the authorities ignored Mari and other mothers, sisters, and friends desperate to find their loved ones because they just so happened to be sex workers, escorts, and prostitutes. Most of them went missing while on a job in a tony Long Island suburb, entering into rarefied territory only to never be seen again, wealth and influence protecting the last people to see them alive and tossing the so-called lost girls away without a care.
In Ryan’s capable hands, Mari is a woman used to being treated like nothing, a scrappy, brassy single mom who has made plenty of mistakes but still has a profound sense of right and wrong. When Shannan goes missing, Mari and her other daughters (played by standouts Thomasin McKenzie and Oona Laurence) refuse to ignore their instincts that something is very wrong. Mari and her girls’ continued quest for justice (or, hell, for a cop to just listen to them; Dean Winters believably plays a snidely dismissive local detective, Gabriel Byrne is less effective as his boss) brings them into the orbit of other, similar women searching for their missing girls.
Ryan’s righteous fury is hard to match, but McKenzie in particular makes for a calming foil for her, and the introduction of a cadre of supporting stars give the pair still more talents to play off of. Lola Kirke, here cast as a woman both bent on finding her missing sister and horrified of how easily it might have been her instead, is incendiary, all biting rage and unchecked fear. It’s a brassy, big part, but one that Kirke brings a deep sadness to, a stunning reflection of Ryan’s similar take on a complex character.
Mostly shot on location in the Gilberts’ hometown in Ulster County and in and around key Long Island locations, cinematographer Igor Martinovic’s muted color palette, all gray blues and sickly greens, reflects the somber tone of the subject matter. Wide shots allow the audience to search alongside Mari and her cohorts, from sweeping ocean vistas to visits to the cloistered community where so many of the girls were last seen.
Kolker himself has compared his book to writing about the maiden voyage of the Titanic — everyone knows how it ends, the trick is making people care about how it gets there — and Garbus mostly succeeds in keeping up that unique tension. While there are some successes for Mari and her sisterhood along the way, the kind of wrenching wins that involve finding a body or identifying a skull, the fact-based drama never lends itself to traditional structures or emotions. Final sequences sputter out, the truth of the story keeping it from offering any kind of catharsis, and it grinds to a halt during some of its most fraught moments.
Recent movements in the case — oddly enough, new evidence was announced during a press conference held the very same day Netflix released the film’s first trailer, years after any other fresh news — threaten to spoil its final, messy gut punch revelations. And yet it’s hard to be angry with the possibility that “Lost Girls” will inspire audiences to learn more about the women who were lost, the women who still fought for them, and the ones who so desperately deserve to be found.
“Lost Girls” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the Premieres section. Netflix will release it on March 13.