18 Days of Paranoia #16: Lost Girls (dir by Liz Garbus)


Lost Girls tells the true and infuriating story of Mari Gilbert and her search for her oldest daughter, Shannan.

Mari Gilbert is a single mother who is works as a waitress and struggles to give her children the best life that she can.  She’s still haunted by a decision that she made years ago to temporarily put her three daughters into foster care.  Though she eventually reclaimed two of her daughters, her eldest — Shannan — has basically been on her own since she was sixteen.  Shannan, who is now 24, visits her mother and her sisters on a semi-regular basis.  Despite the fact that Shannan claims that she’s just a waitress (like her mother), Shannan always seems to have a lot of money on her.  Mari has her suspicions about what Shannan’s doing to make that money but she keeps them to herself.

Then, one day in May, Shannan disappears.  Mari can’t get the police to take her seriously when she says her oldest daughter has vanished.  They say that Shannan left on her own and will probably return at some point.  They dismiss Mari’s concerns, telling her that her daughter was a prostitute and therefore, by their logic, unreliable.  Even when Mari gets strange phone calls from a doctor who lives in a gated community in Long Island, the police refuse to take her seriously.

However, Mari then discovers that Shannan called 911 the night that she disappeared.  Despite the fact that Shannan sounded panicked, the police waited an hour before responding to her call and, by the time they arrived, Shannan had disappeared.  It’s only when Mari goes to the media that the police actually start to search the area of Long Island where Shannan disappeared.  The police discover the bodies of several sex workers, all murdered by the same unknown killer.

However, they still don’t find Shannan’s body.  Though Mari and her daughter, Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie), are convinced that Shannan is one of the killer’s victims, the police continue to insist that Shannan probably just ran off on her own.  In fact, the local police commissioner (Gabriel Byrne) finds himself being pressured to do something about Mari because her now constant presence on TV is making the entire community look bad.

Meanwhile, Mari finds herself caught up in a personal feud between two men who live in the gated community, an amateur investigator (Kevin Corrigan) and a shady doctor (Reed Birney) who has a history of making inappropriate phone calls….

Lost Girls is an interesting but frustrating film.  Some of that is because the story on which the film is based did not have a happy ending.  The Long Island serial killer has never been identified or captured.  The most obvious suspect was never charged with anything and subsequently moved down to Florida.  Mari never got justice for Shannan and, sadly, was eventually murdered by her youngest daughter.  (The murder is acknowledged via a title card but it is not actually depicted in the film.)  As a result, the film itself doesn’t really offer up any of the payoff that you would normally expect to get after devoting 90 minutes of your life to it.  It’s frustrating but, at the same time, its understandable.

Amy Ryan gives a great performance as Mari.  That shouldn’t shock anyone.  She makes you feel Mari’s pain, fury, and guilt.  To its credit, the film does shy away from the fact that Mari often looked the other way when it came to how exactly Shannan was making the money that she regularly sent back to her family and Amy Ryan perfectly captures Mari’s struggle to not only get justice for her daughter but also to forgive herself.  Unfortunately, the film is a bit less convincing when it deals with the police and the suspects.  The film, for instance, can’t seem to decide whether or not Gabriel Byrne’s character is indifferent, incompetent, or just overwhelmed by a bad situation.  By that same token, the doctor and his neighbor both seem oddly underwritten and underplayed.  Obviously, the film can’t just come out and accuse a real, living person of murder (especially when that person hasn’t been charged with anything) but it still makes for a frustrating viewing experience.

Where Lost Girls succeeds is at creating a properly ominous atmosphere.  Every scene seems to be filled with dread and, from the minute that Mari starts her investigation, you feel nervous for her.  She’s taking a true journey into the heart of darkness.  The film leaves you angry that the police refused to search for Shannan.  Sex workers are regularly preyed upon and, because of what they do for a living, society often looks the other way.  That’s how you end up with killers like The Green River Killer and the Long Island serial killer.  They don’t get away with their crimes because they’re clever.  They get away with it because, far too often, society refuses to care about their victims.  Lost Girls is an imperfect film but its heart is in the right place and its message is an important one.

Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman
  5. New World Order
  6. Scandal Sheet
  7. Cuban Rebel Girls
  8. The French Connection II
  9. Blunt: The Fourth Man 
  10. The Quiller Memorandum
  11. Betrayed
  12. Best Seller
  13. They Call Me Mister Tibbs
  14. The Organization
  15. Marie: A True Story

3 responses to “18 Days of Paranoia #16: Lost Girls (dir by Liz Garbus)

  1. Pingback: Lisa’s Week In Review: 3/23/20 — 3/29/20 | Through the Shattered Lens

  2. Pingback: 18 Days of Paranoia #17: Walk East On Beacon! (dir by Alfred L. Werker) | Through the Shattered Lens

  3. Pingback: 18 Days of Paranoia #18: Nineteen Eighty-Four (dir by Rudolph Cartier) | Through the Shattered Lens

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