As much as pop culture is currently obsessed with true crime, there’s an ongoing erasure that happens involving the murder of sex workers. When they go missing, the police attitude is too often to treat them as runaways, holding up search efforts. When they turn up dead, the police and the public frequently shrug, as if their work means they had it coming. The media contributes to the blame the victim mentality, describing them chiefly as “prostitutes” or “sex workers” instead of parents, siblings, sons, and daughters. In grainy snapshots, their names are gruesomely used as a warning—most often to women—to be good…or what? Be horribly murdered and buried in a shallow grave out on Long Island? Filmmaker Liz Garbus rejects the slut-shaming and erasure of all this with her riveting narrative feature debut, Lost Girls.
As the follow-up to her must-see limited series Who Killed Garrett Phillips?, the established documentarian adapts Robert Kolker’s investigative book Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, which not only digs into the case of the Long Island Serial Killer but also the women who were his victims and the families left behind.
Amy Ryan stars as Mari Gilbert, a construction worker with three daughters. Her relationship with the eldest, Shannan, is strained. However, Mari hopes a visit home will bring some welcomed bliss for both. But Shannan doesn’t show. At first, her younger sister Sherre (Jojo Rabbit’s Thomasin McKenzie) figures she flaked and leaves a reprimanding voicemail, noting how hurt their mom was by being stood up. Soon, frustration turns to fear as the Gilbert family realizes Shannan hasn’t returned to her boyfriend either. The last she was seen was in a gated community in Long Island, where she was screaming as she ran in terror down the quiet streets at 4 in the morning. The last she was heard was a 23-minute phone call to 911. The police—arriving an hour later—could find no sign of her.
When Mari goes to the police, they seem apathetic to her daughter’s disappearance. Which frankly seems insane considering the 911 call’s harrowing audio. She soon realizes that to find her daughter, she and her daughters will have to fight for the public’s attention and do their own investigating. When a dark twist of fate turns up four bodies—none of them Shannan—the Gilberts find allies in the heartbroken mothers, sisters, and friends of the women believed to be murdered by the Long Island Serial Killer (A.K.A. LISK, Gilgo Beach Killer, Seashore Serial Killer, and Craigslist Ripper.)
I first learned about this ongoing investigation in 2016, courtesy the excellent and terrifying documentary series The Killing Season. There, doc-makers Joshua Zeman and Rachel Mills spoke with the investigators and the victims’ families (including Gilbert) to piece together the full and heinous picture of this uncaught fiend. It seems the man targets petite women who advertised sex work on Craig’s List. He’d lure them out to Long Island, where they’d vanish. It’s almost like he knew the cops don’t care about the lives of poor women who do sex work. They’re assumed to be reckless junkies with ties to no one, and so their bodies—wrapped and burlap—laid for months and years undiscovered while their families felt powerless, furious, and grief-stricken.
Lost Girls is less interested in the motives and methods of LISK than his victims. Garbus’s characters will recount some of the most shocking facts of the case, like the body count, the method of murder, and the connections between the victims. Like David Fincher’s Zodiac, this film builds a case pointing to the seemingly prime suspect. But chiefly, this docudrama focuses on the mothers and sisters whose world’s were shattered first by murder then by the indifference of a system that treated their lost girls like trash. Lost Girls won’t disrespect these women by making each a shining example of motherhood or womanhood. The script by Michael Werwie 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 the tsk-tsking of the evening news.
Ryan leads a stellar cast, delivering a performance that is reminiscent of her Academy Award-nominated Gone Baby Gone turn, in which she also played a working-class mom hit hard by the disappearance of her daughter. Of course, Helene McCready is a very different brand of mom from Mari Gilbert. Yet both share a gruff world-weariness and a penetrating gaze that makes investigators tremble. In this case, it’s Gabriel Byrne, whose hangdog expression is wildly infuriating as it repeatedly feels like a “whatcha gonna do” shrug of hopelessness. In contrast, Thomasin McKenzie, whose breakthrough in Leave No Trace left this critic breathless, brings a wide-eyed hopefulness as Shannan’s sister. With a soft voice, she offers words of encouragement. So when her voice cracks in despair, our hearts crack with it. Miriam Shor, who will forever be Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s Yitzhak to me, brings stalwart support as a peer in grief and confidante to Mari. Meanwhile, Lola Kirke brings the loose-limbed charm of a been-there/done-that party girl and an unwelcome dose of reality to the grieving moms.
By veering into the humanity of this story, Garbus is able to express the horror without getting too ghoulish. Unlike many true-crime offerings, Lost Girls rejects recounting the grisliest bits as if they are treasure to relish. Which makes one scene of unapologetically realistic gore hit all the harder. Garbus wants us to understand the agony of LISK’s victims past and present, those murdered and those left behind without answers. He’s still out there. The pressure should still be on. Perhaps the outrage so powerfully expressed in Lost Girls will inspire its audience to join the cry for the justice that Shannan and her sisters in death have so far been denied.
Lost Girls is now on Netflix.
Header Image Source: Netflix