Documentarian Liz Garbus, Oscar-nominated for “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” tackles her first narrative feature with a story that’s well within her wheelhouse after her HBO true crime docs such as “Something’s Wrong With Aunt Diane” and “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?”
“Lost Girls,” billed as an “unsolved American mystery,” is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Robert Kolker, an investigation of the murders of an at-large serial killer believed to have slain at least 10, and potentially 16, victims, mostly sex workers, in Long Island, N.Y.
Kolker’s book is a sprawling story that traverses the Eastern Seaboard from Maine to New York and dives deep into the lives and disappearances of five victims and their families’ search for answers. It’s been condensed into a 95-minute film that focuses primarily on Mari Gilbert (a flinty Amy Ryan with a brassy bleached mane), the mother of Shannan Gilbert, a New Jersey sex worker who called 911 in a panic from the gated Long Island community of Oak Beach before disappearing into the night.
Though her 2010 disappearance didn’t exactly precipitate the discovery of the other bodies (a routine police K-9 training exercise did), the circumstances were unusual enough to arouse suspicion in the reclusive enclave of Oak Beach, spurred by Mari’s vocal advocacy. Upset with the media depiction that these women — sisters, daughters and friends — were merely “prostitutes” whose killings weren’t worth investigating, Mari, through sheer force of will, sought to impose her own agenda on the public narrative.
Because the film, like the book, immediately announces itself as “unsolved,” it takes a bit of suspense off the table. Much of the film’s drama is taken up with whether the police, headed up by Commissioner Richard Dormer (Gabriel Byrne), will take Mari’s complaints seriously. The only real mystery is whether they’ll find Shannan’s remains or enough evidence to arrest a longtime Oak Beach resident and local doctor (Reed Birney) who came into contact with her that night.
Garbus brings a chilly, windswept and at times lyrical aesthetic to the film, and the actors — including the always wildly compelling Lola Kirke and the quietly powerful Thomasin McKenzie as sisters of the victims — do their best with the hacky, formulaic and obvious script by Michael Werwie (“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”). Kolker’s book delicately wove themes of class and structural issues throughout the stories of these women, humanizing them and indicting the system that drove them to increasingly dangerous sex work. That nuance and cultural commentary are lacking in the film adaptation.
Werwie’s script doesn’t know where to land: Is it the media? The local police? The insular nature of this community that may have concealed a serial killer for decades?
Though the film eventually gets to where it needs to go, it feels scattered, stumbling over true crime tropes on the way. All the opportunity is there to explore the exploitation of women and the unbalanced and dangerous economy of sex work; to indict the misogyny that permeates media and law enforcement. But the script is never willing to pin down those ideas in any kind of damning statement.
Through the force of Ryan’s steely performance, we’re simply left with this devastatingly grim tragedy and very few answers to hold on to.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Starts Friday, Landmark Westwood (formerly the Regent); also available on Netflix