A film review by Craig J. Koban March 22, 2020


2020, R, 95 mins.


Amy Ryan as Mari Gilbert  /  Thomasin McKenzie as Sherre Gilbert  /  Oona Laurence as Sarra Gilbert  /  Lola Kirke as Kim  /  Gabriel Byrne as Richard Dormer  /  Dean Winters  as Dean Bostick  /  Kevin Corrigan as Joe Scalise  /  Miriam Shor  as Lorraine  /  Reed Birney as Peter Hackett  /  Grace Capeless as Amanda

Directed by Liz Garbus  /  Written by Michael Werwie


Based on the 2011 New York Magazine story that, in turn, spawned Robert Koller's non-fiction book: LOST GIRLS: AN UNRESOLVED AMERICAN MYSTERY, the new Netflix film LOST GIRLS tells the fact based tale of one woman whose family life was deeply affected by the Long Island serial killer, a still unidentified person that's believed to have slain a dozen-plus people over the course of two decades, with most of the victims being women.  A majority of the narrative focuses on Mari Gilbert, a then financially struggling single mother of three whose long estranged daughter in Shannon went missing in the Oak Beach area of Long Island in 2010 after meeting with a prospective client (she was an escort).  Shannon spent 90 minutes on the phone with 911 and was even spotted running down her client's street, screaming for assistance, but amazingly did not receive any prudent public assistance.  

The police didn't arrive on scene for an hour.   

Shannon's mother in Mari smelled something terribly afoul, and took it upon herself to begin her own hunt for her missing daughter after she felt law enforcement simply didn't do enough.  Mari is played in a performance of rich complexity and gritty determination by the terribly underrated Amy Ryan, who creates a memorable character that not only has to persevere through economic hardships and the strains of raising her daughters on her own, but also has to be a steadfast and hardworking sleuth on the side that will stop at nothing to get answers about her daughter's disappearance and to uncover what the police did and did not do when it comes to their own investigation.  

Two things struck immediate cords with me about LOST GIRLS on top of Ryan's tour de force performance: Firstly, there's the heartbreaking aspect of the lack of tangible details about the real identity of the Long Island killer, but director Liz Garbus (making her feature film debut after being an Oscar nominated documentary filmmaker) doesn't dwell too much on probing this mystery.  Instead and rather wisely, she hones in the demoralizing impact of police neglect and incompetence in the case handling.  Mari wisely and angrily points out throughout the narrative that the cops simply didn't care, mostly because Shannon and other victims were prostitutes.  But they were all people that died horribly, and they deserved better. 



LOST GIRLS gets many of the details right and explores the true events in simple and economical chronological order.  We meet Ryan's Mari in May of 2010, trying to keep her work and family life together when she learns that Shannon has disappeared.  Mari's other daughter (LEAVE NO TRACE's superb Thomasin McKenizie, naturally and deeply effective here as well) initially became concerned when her multiple calls to Shannon went unanswered, but the red flags of panic really started to emerge when local police officials (played by Gabriel Byrne and Dean Winters) reveal that Shannon made a lengthy 911 phone call before she vanished.  Worse yet, on the call the she sounded out of breath and frightened for her well being.  The aforementioned fact of the police failing to arrive on scene incensed Mari to no end, leading to her one woman crusade for the truth.  Things change drastically for her when a body of a murdered woman shows up...then another...and then another...all of which hinted towards a serial killer of sex workers.  Mari decides to up her offensive sleuthing by teaming up with family members that also have seen their own children go missing.  Tragically, Shannon was among the multiple dead women eventually found in 2011, but local officials crazily theorized that she died due to exposure and drowning in a nearby marsh.  Mari later led the charge of an independent autopsy, which showed that Shannon was indeed strangled.  Even more heart breaking is that her murder and those of all the other women found have not been officially solved. 

What's so utterly sad and infuriating about watching LOST GIRLS is the intense levels of professional disregard for Shannon's case by the larger law enforcement, which leads to Mari overcoming her initial grief, which later manifests into all out anger.  In Mari's eyes, Shannon and all of the other brutally murdered woman were trivialized by the cops based on their chosen profession.  Mari's outright hostility (often displayed to the media) did, on a positive, help lead a change in the authorities to act, but unfortunately for Mari and her family, Shannon's remains weren't found for months.  The psychological impact on them proved to be unfathomably cruel.  Six years after Shannon vanished, Mari's other daughter in Sarra ended up in a mental hospital and was diagnosed with schizophrenia.  During one hellish day in 2016, Mari came to visit her troubled and deeply unstable daughter.  Sarra ended up murdering Mari with multiple head shots with a fire extinguisher.  She ended up being charged with murder and found guilty.  She was sentenced to 25 years in prison. 

Much of this is not covered very much in LOST GIRLS, but I mentioned it all in an effort to show Mari's relentless drive to find the truth and the subsequent revelations didn't bring much in the way of emotional closure for her family.  If the police had acted quicker and located Shannon in a timely manner would it have changed Mari's post-case family history for the better?  It's hard to say.  Garbus pays great respect, though, to the tireless efforts of Mari and the other families to uncover what the police didn't seem interested in doing, but she never makes Mari an figure on instant hero worship.  The screenplay and Ryan's deeply committed and immersive performance affords Mari multiple layers of hidden and problematic depth.  Mari was definitely no saint and had an aggressively coarse personality as displayed in the film (she could be as roughly talking with her daughters as she was with the incompetent police officers), but she should be nevertheless applauded for rising well above being a helpless victim of tragedy and instead became of leading of other families looking for answers.  Ryan's work her rarely asks us to like this woman, but rather understand and empathize with her agonizing pain and fury when faced with an uncaring police force.  And that's the subtle genius of her performance. 

LOST GIRLS, though, suffers somewhat from being a bit too truncated in terms of running time for its own good and when one considers the scope of the historically based story itself (at just over 90 minutes, the film could have really benefited from some beefier storytelling to further develop those who joined Mari on her quest).  We also don't get much in the way of an examination of the many other victims of this vile killer, nor do we really get inside the headspaces on their respective families very much through the course of the film.  LOST GIRLS belongs on a list of other recent fact based films that I wished would have been the product of a long form documentary mini-series as opposed to an all too brief and skimmed over dramatization of the events in question (which is doubly ironic considering Garbus' doc background).  Still, LOST GIRLS deserves a watch for Ryan's haunted performance heroics and for the manner that the film manages to shed modest light on a series of terribly overlooked murders that regrettably had ghastly side effects on Mari and her family.  I think this film gets a bit lost in its creative execution at times, but I won't soon forget it. 

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