Audiences gravitate to the “police procedural” subgenre for closure, catharsis (i.e., to watch the bad guys get it), and reassurance that our institutions will triumph over savagery through science, steadfastness, and empathy for victims and their loved ones. A film like Lost Girls is a different beast. It’s an anti-police procedural. Based on Robert Kolker’s book about the Long Island serial killer believed to have butchered between ten and 16 female sex workers (whose bodies lay for years on a stretch of Gilgo Beach), Liz Garbus’s movie challenges the traditional presentation of police competence and commitment, and suggests a connection between murderous misogyny and patriarchal indifference.
Garbus and the screenwriter Michael Werwie make their protagonist not a detective but the mother of one of the victims, Shannan Gilbert, whose disappearance in 2010 indirectly led to the discovery of other human remains. Her name is Mari (Amy Ryan), and she’s seen working two menial jobs in Ellenville, New York, where she struggles to house, feed, and emotionally support her two younger daughters with varying degrees of success. (A double-edged promo for Heinz Ketchup: Mari waiting … and waiting … for a half-empty bottle’s contents to slide down into another’s. A symbol of stasis, the futility of life in the gig economy, and good ketchup.) Although Mari and the 24-year-old Shannan have reconciled after a long estrangement, it’s an uneasy relationship, and Mari is stunned to learn her daughter disappeared while on an outcall to the private Long Island community of Oak Beach. There’s so much she didn’t know — or didn’t want to know.
The first section of Lost Girls centers on Mari’s attempt to get the police to put Shannan “in the system” in either New Jersey (her home) or on Long Island, a process that you’d think wouldn’t leave them so fuddled. Then she has to overcome Suffolk County detectives’ implicit contempt for women “engaged in a high-risk business.” The emergence of a lengthy 911 recording of Shannan screaming for help doesn’t seem to embarrass the department for taking an hour to arrive at the scene — it makes them double-down on their contention that Shannan was on drugs and likely wandered into the reeds and drowned. It’s tough to watch cops on TV (in this case, Netflix) and not want to scream, “Why aren’t you acting like cops on TV?” The most cathartic moment comes early, when Mari staples an entire sheaf of “Missing” posters on the department’s bulletin board and the chief can’t ignore her any longer. After that, the murk only deepens.
It’s a brave performance by Ryan — hard, un-ingratiating. Framed by bedraggled, peroxide-blond locks, Mari’s face is a mask of anger and something else, something that’s harder to describe. Is it shame? Mari once put Shannan in foster care while struggling with her own addiction, but insists to investigators that she did the best she could for her daughter. Does she believe that? She still struggles to give her children what they need: Her middle daughter (the marvelously transparent Thomasin McKenzie) literally begs for attention. Ryan surprises me every time I see her. She doesn’t interpret her characters for us or maybe even for herself. She has radar for emotions that will remain inexplicable.
Two male characters represent the Suffolk County Police. Dean Winters projects a familiar brand of smugness and condescension (he calls Mari “feisty”) as a cop based on James Burke, who is said to have blocked FBI involvement for years. (Burke was later imprisoned for brutality and a cover-up in an unrelated case.) Gabriel Byrne’s Richard Dormer, the Suffolk County Police Commissioner, is an altogether stranger portrait. Byrne brings a bleary, Hibernian gravity to a man who turns out to be the antithesis of every driving movie cop you’ve seen. Dormer takes zero initiative — he’s only reactive and barely even that, and he refuses to acknowledge his own limitations. His and Ryan’s scenes are meant to be deeply unsatisfying and they are: a nakedly vulnerable woman versus a powerful empty suit. You might shudder when Mari blasts him for the department’s failure to obtain surveillance camera tapes from one of Shannan’s last known locations and all he can do is hang his head: Is he impotent and inept or projecting impotence and ineptitude to close down the discussion? Both, probably.
The male actors have a major challenge: Because the case remains unsolved, none can be certain if his character is the murderer or a a red herring. The johns, conspiracy theorists, and wary bystanders all seem to have screws loose, their private beach community a petri dish for social awkwardness. As Dr. Peter Hackett, the peerless Reed Birney adds to his long list of characters who look so comfortably patriarchal that you think at first, “He must be a very good father,” and then, “Thank God this creep is not my father.” His Hackett is a man who boasts of being a rescuer of helpless young women but at the same time seems as if he’s auditioning to play Hannibal Lecter. He plainly enjoys fucking with people’s heads.
An accomplished documentary filmmaker who’s drawn to enigmatic figures — from unknowable killers to celebrities as beyond our ken as Marilyn Monroe and Bobby Fischer — Garbus is both in and out of her element. In her fictional debut, she resists cinematic tricks, seeming to arrive at scenes along with her characters. Nothing feels over-planned, pre-chewed. The ambiguities are allowed to sit, unshaded by talking heads proposing theories. Even when family members of the killer’s other victims arrive on Long Island to rally and march through Oak Beach (to the owners’ horror) and share their memories of the young women they’ve lost, the sense of aloneness persists. Help does not arrive in the form of Sherlock Holmes, Will Graham, et al.
What I miss from Garber’s Lost Girls is the extraordinary breadth of Kolker’s book, which began as a feature for New York Magazine. Kolker didn’t cleave to the true-crime template or put all the emphasis on identifying the killer. The mystery Kolker knew he could solve was what brought these young women — alike in some ways, unalike in others — to the remote spot on the Long Island shore where they would lose their lives. In addition to Shannan Gilbert, he gives us heartbreaking accounts of the childhoods of Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Megan Waterman, and Amber Lynn Costello, all of whom had struggled with family trauma, depression, and/or addiction before advertising their services on Craigslist. None of them could be summed up by the word “prostitute.” Kolker’s voice was distinctive for its easy, nonjudgmental tone. His humanism was a relief from the lurid tabloid details of the case and the peculiar listlessness — the lack of curiosity or empathy — of the Suffolk County investigators.
So, to be fair, is Garbus’s. She makes you wince in pain when Mari arrives at the scene of a grisly discovery and a man in front of her says, “Is it the body of that hooker?” Some scenes might have been brilliant with a little more shaping, like the ones between Ryan and Lola Kirke as a dour young woman who resolves to leave “the life” but continues to drift in and out of it, her idea of what constitutes freedom always in flux — like her emotions. Mari’s youngest daughter, Sarra, who struggles with mental illness, seems to exist just outside frame. We know there’s something wrong but can’t begin to conceive of what’s sprung on us in a nightmarish closing credit.
But Garbus brings off something extraordinary in a film that sets out to leave us sad, enraged, and profoundly unsatisfied. Lost Girls makes us want to rethink our need for a certain kind of closure in a world that has so little of it. It makes other true-crime movies — and true-crime docs, several of which have been made about this case — seem not just sensationalistic but misleading in ways meant to hide the ugly truth: that the institutions meant to protect the least powerful in our society are dysfunctional bordering on diseased. The anti-procedural may be our greatest hope for change.