Lost Girls Can't Find An Identity
Every movie serves countless masters: the irascible director; the superstar demanding a spotlight scene; the writer seeking fidelity to the script; the cost-conscious producer; the studio urging changes to bring it closer to a four-quadrant movie. The best movies alchemize these ingredients into a cohesive whole. I am sorry to say that Lost Girls, Liz Garbus’s re-telling of an unidentified long island serial killer and the women he targeted, is not one of those movies.
Lost Girls often resembles a crime procedural, simultaneously tracking a shoddy police investigation led by Commissioner Doman (Gabriel Byrne) and the desperate search of Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan) for her missing daughter, Shannan. Like the murdered women, Shannan is a sex worker, and she was last seen in an area near the location of the bodies. Despite the compelling, open-ended true story, Lost Girls fails to replicate the urgency or suspense of a movie like Zodiac. The egregious errors by the police are taken as unfortunate, inevitable facts rather than incorporated into the plot, and the screenplay relies heavily on an out-of-the-blue appearance by a conspiracy theorist neighbor (Kevin Corrigan) who seems to know everything about the case, and who drops into Mari’s life every time she gets stuck. The failure of Lost Girls to rivet could be forgiven, because it is also a message-movie, clearly designed to lift up the lives of the women who were cast as one-dimensional working girls by the cops, the media, and the gated community in which they were murdered. But the film loses these women just as easily. We learn about Shannan’s troubled upbringing through the perspective of her mother’s abandonment; about her work from her driver and boyfriend; and about her personality as a child from a brief home video. At no point do we get Shannan’s story, and we certainly don’t get a picture of the woman beyond what others saw. This myopic approach extends to what little screen-time the movie offers the families of the other victims - all of whom present as caricatures of grieving relatives. The one exception might be Kim (Lola Kirke), the sister to a victim and a once-and-future working girl herself, but her role barely exists beyond laying bare the hypocrisy of Mari, who manages to call out the police and media in one moment only to transparently judge her daughter and Kim for their chosen profession in the next. A muddled message can be excused, though, because Lost Girls is also a gritty drama about one vigilante mother’s mission to outrun her demon-filled past, overcome the inertia of broken institutions, and prove her love for her missing daughter. As Mari tells the police, “I have been hung up on, dismissed, and ignored, but one thing I will not be is silenced.” But we barely see that - the first and second movies get in the way. It’s unclear whether this is a story about Mari’s incredible self-possession and heroic efforts to overcome, or if it is instead a tale that uses her as a conduit to lift up the lives of lost women. As Mari says later, contradicting the intense focus on her own journey, “our job is to make sure these girls are never forgotten.” And that’s the problem with Lost Girls: its attempts to be three movies in one render it a poor facsimile of each. And further, this mishmash leads to a series of inexplicable decisions. Garbus’s reliance on stylistic filmmaking techniques - including repeated use of dutch-angles, mirror-shots, and overly artistic transitions - probably make sense for a character study of Mari, but seem out-of-place in either of the other two movies. Amy Ryan seems to be acting in that first movie, while her younger daughter (Thomas McKenzie) inhabits a different one, more reflective of the title’s focus on the women left behind. A strange, late-movie reveal of several family medical problems seems like the product of script-tinkering that attempts to erase entire sub-plots, but misses a spot here and there. And a finale focused on the solidarity between the mothers, sisters, and daughters of the lost girls rests on relationships that are never established earlier, or perhaps were at some point, but ended up on the cutting room floor. Ultimately, Lost Girls lacks the connective tissue necessary to pull three distinctive approaches into one; instead, each movie sits side-by-side, one on top of the other, like oil with water. The most prominent example is an attempt to build that cohesion in the editing room: midway through, a sequence where a paranoid neighbor mysteriously calls Mari, meets her, and leads her through the swamp to the “real” killer’s house is intercut with an emotional reminiscence by the younger relatives of the missing and dead, recalling memories of their sisters. The poignant moment is cut to just two quick stories, clearly abridged to make room for the investigation; neither is effective. In a moving coda, Lost Girls puts the real-life participants and their stories on-screen. It’s a worthy decision, but its most lasting effect is to enhance the longing for a movie that does them justice. Lost Girls is well-intentioned, but too jumbled to have the impact it may want.