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A woman speaks into news microphones.
Amy Ryan in Lost Girls.
Photo: Jessica Kourkounis/Netflix

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Netflix’s Lost Girls almost gets lost in literal darkness

The narrative feature debut of documentarian Liz Garbus is based on a true story

Most stories involving murders tend to center on how a case is solved. Who committed the crime? What evidence was found? What actually happened? Netflix’s new thriller Lost Girls, which pulls from Robert Kolker’s non-fiction investigation of the Long Island serial killer, chases the same questions, but with a different end point in mind. The goal isn’t to find a killer, so much as it is to emphasize the ways women’s stories are often dismissed, and how people who aren’t well-off aren’t offered the same institutional consideration and care as the rich. It’s a compelling point to make, but one almost lost in the movie’s murky execution.

It’s been a trend over the past decade for prestige movie and TV directors to distinguish their projects by leaning heavily into blue-and-green color grading. Lost Girls follows that Ozark/House of Cards visual formula. That distinct look at least serves as a clear sign that director Liz Garbus, who has made documentaries for two decades, and makes her narrative debut here, is trying a new kind of storytelling, since the film recreates the events of recent history rather than depicting them directly.

Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan) is a single mother working two jobs in order to support her daughters Sherre (Leave No Trace star Thomasin McKenzie) and Sarra (Oona Laurence). When her eldest daughter Shannan, with whom she maintains minimal contact, fails to show up for dinner, Mari doesn’t think anything of it. But as the days pass, it becomes clear that Shannan has gone missing. The resulting search leads to the discovery of four corpses, and an investigation into an apparent serial killer.

A group of people lean on each other, holding handles and signs for the missing or dead women.
A group of people gathered at a vigil.
Photo: Jessica Kourkounis/Netflix

Though the evidence is morbidly fascinating — more bodies, mysterious calls, disappearing security footage — Garbus focuses on the process itself. The investigation’s progress has everything to do with Mari’s persistence, as she hounds policemen whose initial interest in the case seems to dim as soon as they realize Shannan and the other murdered women were sex workers. It also comes to light that police took a full hour to respond to a frantic 911 call from Shannan, while they arrive in mere minutes after members of a rich gated community complain that Mari is trespassing.

The odds against Mari are stacked: The police and public don’t take her seriously because she’s a woman, because she’s from a poor background, and because her daughter was involved in a profession with a long history of being judged and stigmatized. The realization of just how many other women the Long Island serial killer claimed is horrifying not just because of the rising death toll, but because of how many more women might be dead because people didn’t listen, or didn’t care enough.

Garbus’ focus on these larger institutional problems helps the film from feeling aimless, as the Long Island serial killer remains unfound, preventing a typical murder-mystery denouement. The obstacles Mari faces aren’t a thing of a past (the real-life Shannan Gilbert went missing in 2010), and general unwillingness to believe women’s stories remains a pressing issue as an increasing number of cases of sexual harassment and abuse are brought to light.

The Gilbert women at home.
Oona Laurence, Thomasin McKenzie, and Amy Ryan in Lost Girls.
Photo: Jessica Kourkounis/Netflix

Ryan’s performance helps keep the film from feeling too broad, in spite of how many issues it covers. Mari is by no means perfect; even though she understands that her daughter’s profession is, unfairly, one of the reasons she isn’t a priority case, she can’t help but try to talk a fellow grieving relative into quitting sex work. Less rosy discoveries about her history with her daughter also come to light as the investigation continues, including the fact that Shannan was helping support Mari. Ryan expertly walks the fine line between frustration and sadness, as she attempts to explain the situation to her surviving daughters. With them, she’s necessarily more vulnerable than she is with the police.

But that nuance threatens to get lost in the murky imagery. Much of the film happens in shadows, sometimes to the point where the action is almost incomprehensible. The darkness undermines the strength of the performances — McKenzie is particularly great, as Sherre struggles to understand why Mari kept the details of Shannan’s life a secret from her and Sarra, but parts of her performance are lost as her features are obscured by shadows.

Luckily, Garbus’ direction helps keep the visible parts of the film compelling. There’s no gratuitous lingering on dead bodies, and almost no sight of the dead women at all. Shannen’s presence is also largely felt and not seen; her face is only clear in the “have you seen me?” posters Mari puts up, preserved in a happy picture rather than as a corpse. It’s a small detail, but it’s the kind of twist on the usual murder-mystery formula that makes Lost Girls so special. The film is bigger than the deaths at its center.

Lost Girls is streaming on Netflix now.