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Seven months after Shannan Gilbert went missing, a body was found on a desolate stretch of a Long Island parkway. It wasn’t Shannan’s body, and neither was the next one or the next one or even the next one; it wasn’t until authorities had discovered ten bodies on that same stretch of Ocean Parkway that Shannan was found. By then, her mother Mari had already spent months knocking on doors, imploring the police to investigate, and bonding with the other women left in the wake of what would end up being one of America’s most mysterious serial killers. It’s the kind of ripped-from-the-headlines drama that seems like a natural fit for two-time Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus, who opted to turn the material into not another doc, but an unsettling narrative feature. Garbus, who has long been motivated by stories about remarkable women and horrible crimes, makes a strong showing with “Lost Girls,” her first narrative feature in her decades-long career.
Adapted from Robert Kolker’s book by “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” screenwriter Michael Werwie, another filmmaker might have balked at telling a story that’s dedicated to unveiling the truth, but is entirely hamstrung by the harsh reality that it doesn’t exist (at least not yet). Kolker’s book presented a number of possibilities for the identity of the so-called Long Island serial killer (LISK), one person believed to have murdered 16 to 20 people (mostly female sex workers) over the course of two decades, but criminal charges have yet to be brought against any one of them. Garbus’ film eventually zeroes in on a single suspect, though she and Werwie handle their apparent theories with the same amount of grace as Kolker’s lyrical, haunting book.
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