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Non-Review Review: Lost Girls

Lost Girls is a solid and unfussy true crime drama, anchored in a strong central performance from Amy Ryan.

There are interesting ideas simmering in the background of Lost Girls. Director Liz Garbus is best known as a documentarian, and there are certainly aspects of Lost Girls that feel like they belong more comfortably in a documentary than a narrative feature. Michael Werwie’s script is adapted from Robert Kolker’s book of the same name, looking at the case of the Long Island Serial Killer. The killer was never caught, with some speculation as to whether his last documented murder occurred in 2010 or 2013. The investigation is currently ongoing, which gives the film a certain edge and rawness.

However, Garbus works hard to keep things tasteful and restrained. In actual narrative terms, Lost Girls is fairly conventional. It often feels assembled from a list of scenes that audiences expect to see in a drama like this. There are plenty of scenes of concerned mother Mari Gilbert yelling at impotent authority figures, countless scenes dictating the indifference or ineptitude of the authority figures tasked with protecting these young women, lots of emotional scenes in which Mari comes to terms with her own imperfections as a mother following her daughter’s disappearance.

However, the most interesting aspects of this “unsolved American mystery” lurk at the edge of the frame, recalling the quiet tweaks that Just Mercy made to the death penalty drama this past awards season. Lost Girls is a serial killer film that is much more interested in systemic injustice than it is in the sensationalist actions of a single monstrous villain. Lost Girls never quite manages to convincingly restructure the serial killer investigation movie template to the extent of something like Zodiac, but perhaps it doesn’t have to. It is more interesting for subtle shifts in emphasis within a familiar formula.

One of the most interesting pop cultural trends of the past few years has been the resurgence in interest around the serial killer genre. The genre was a staple of nineties entertainment, largely driven by the success of films like The Silence of the Lambs. The genre exploded into the mainstream with a host feature films like The Cell, Single White Female, Copycatse7en, Kiss the Girls. It even took over television with shows like Millennium and Profiler. However, the serial killer largely slipped from public consciousness in the twenty-first century, perhaps eclipsed by the horror of terrorism.

Of course, the serial killer never entirely went away. In fact, it could be argued that television shows like CSI and Criminal Minds just made cinematic serial killers redundant. Nevertheless, films like Zodiac had an elegiac feel to them. However, recent years have seen the serial killer gradually shift back to a place of cultural prominence. Kevin Bacon headlined the television show Following. On HBO, True Detective became a prestige hit. On the big screen, A Walk Among the Tombstones actually managed to literally tie the decline of the serial killer to the War on Terror in its breathtaking closing shot.

There may be multiple reasons for the serial killer renaissance. Perhaps it is just part of the wider wave of nineties nostalgia that has resurrected everything from The X-Files to Friends to Will & Grace. Perhaps it is tied to the popularity of true crime podcasts like Serial, to the point that even slasher movies like Halloween have to acknowledge the shift. Perhaps it reflects a shift of contemporary anxieties away from the immediacy of the War on Terror back to the core anxieties of the nineties. Perhaps it’s simply a result of companies like Netflix investing in mid-tier adult-oriented films and television shows again.

Indeed, it seems highly likely that this serial killer renaissance is due to a combination of factors. After all, Netflix released both Joe Berlinger’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile and his documentary The Ted Bundy Tapes. Although reportedly cancelled, the Netflix series Mindhunter is largely focused on documentary-type interviews with serial killers rather than shocking acts of violence. Even more conventional serial killer fare like In the Shadow of the Moon or Lost Girls will premiere on Netflix alongside viral hits like Don’t F&!k with the Cats.

This is all interesting in the context of Lost Girls because it provides a context for some of the subtle shifts that the film makes to the standard serial killer procedural. Lost Girls contains all manner of stock police procedural scenes – shouting matches with loved ones, ominous shots of observers watching from the distance, interrogation scenes which cut back and forth across a sterile grey table. Indeed, Lost Girls leans more heavily into these exposition scenes than most narrative films, with dialogue often reading more like actual transcribed witness statements than human conversation.

When an escort named Shannan Gilbert goes missing, her mother tracks down the driver who ferried her to her last client. The driver is initially slightly uncomfortable, but the scene very quickly transforms into an awkward information dump. “Your daughter was hysterical that night,” the driver explains. “She ran down the road, banging on the door of any house with a light on it.” It feels very much like Lost Girls expects the audience to be following along at home, building their own case and trying to line up the facts based on witness testimony.

This lends the dialogue a vaguely clunky quality. Lost Girls is full of characters telling one another things they already know, or just stating facts to one another because there’s no time for surrounding context. This is true even in the characters’ home lives. Early in the film, young Sarra Gilbert complains about having to take her medication. Her mother chides her, explaining that “they keep you from lighting paper towels on fire.” It’s an inelegant way of delivering that information to the audience, which can occasionally make the movie seem a little cold and impersonal.

The film has attracted some minor controversy for this approach, particularly in relation to its handling of certain suspects in the Long Island Serial Killer investigation. There are points at which Lost Girls seems very devoted to advancing a particular narrative line concerning various parties to the murder, but in a surprisingly direct manner for a film about an unresolved investigation from within the past decade. Perhaps because the actual facts of the case are so murky, Lost Girls adamantly avoids any real ambiguity in its own accounting of events.

Even when the film brushes up against these documented ambiguities, makes sure to highlight them for the audience. Confronting a possible suspect whose security cameras would have theoretically captured relevant information, but had since been wiped, Commissioner Doman wonders why the suspect didn’t volunteer the tapes to the authorities. “Why didn’t you show them the security tape footage?” Doman asks. “Why didn’t they ask for it?” the suspect replies. The film brushes right up against pointing its finger at a guilty party, but makes sure that the audience knows that it has an opinion.

This approach feels like it hews closer to the format of a “true crime” podcast like Serial rather than an exploration of the serial killer genre like Zodiac. Indeed, Lost Girls often feels like an effort to modernise certain aspects of the familiar serial killer template to keep it inline with contemporary audience expectations. Perhaps reflecting the extent to which these true crime podcasts and widely-seen documentaries touch on systemic flaws and structural injustice, Lost Girls is very careful to demonstrate that these murders did not occur within a vacuum. (The second season of Mindhunter does something similar in its trip to Atlanta.)

“What is this, some kind of cover-up or just incompetence?” Mari demands of Commissioner Doman. The film repeatedly emphasises the sorts of barriers that exist for marginalised women like Shannon Gilbert in receiving protection from the authorities. “When girls like this disappear… it’s a high risk environment,” explains the police officer handling Mari’s missing person report. News footage reporting on the discovery of the women’s bodies announces that “victims were engaged in a high-risk profession”

There’s a lot of righteous anger in Lost Girls, which gives Ryan a lot of material to play. “I’ve been hung up on, dismissed and ignored, but one thing I won’t be is silenced,” Mari tells her daughter at one point. Later, she laments, “Why are our girls to blame at the expense of everybody else?” It could all very easily seem more like a manifesto than a narrative, and it occasionally tips over when the dialogue gets a little too heavy-handed, but Ryan does a good job in anchoring the film a recognisably human perspective.

This recalls the way that Just Mercy attempted something similar with another staple nineties genre. Much like Just Mercy attempted to properly contextualise the death penalty genre within the scheme of larger systemic injustices against African Americans, Lost Girls attempts to contextualise the serial killer genre within a broader cultural context of indifference towards certain classes of women. It’s an interesting approach to the material, even if Lost Girls integrates its big ideas a little less successfully than Just Mercy.

Lost Girls offers a solid, if unexceptional, serial killer drama. However, it does try to slightly rework the template for the twenty-first century.

One Response

  1. Will have a review for this done in the coming days. You’re welcome to follow if you like for that and other reviews.

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