“Honestly, who spends that much time looking for a missing hooker?,” says one of the detectives involved in the investigation of the disappearance of Shannan Gilbert, a 23-year old woman who went missing after arranging a meeting through Craigslist. The case is the inspiration for Netflix’s Lost Girls, which follows the gruelling battle between Shannan’s mother, Mari (Amy Ryan), and a deeply biased system that continuously refuses to pay her daughter the attention – and respect – she deserves.
Another thriller reflecting upon the poor treatment of sex workers by law enforcement is The Frozen Ground, a fictionalisation of the true story of Robert Hansen’s (played here by John Cusack) murder spree and subsequent arrest. The film revolves around 17-year old Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens), whose allegations against Hansen, a standing citizen within the local community, are received with sheer dismissal. “You can’t rape a prostitute,” says one of the police officers initially in charge of handling the case, and many are the ones who share his opinion.
Cinema’s true crime fascination
From Albert Hitchcock’s Psycho to David Fincher’s Zodiac, many are the all-time great classics inspired by real-life stories of murder and mayhem. What Lost Girls and The Frozen Ground share, in particular, is the decision to depict a true crime involving one of the minorities most affected by serial killing: sex workers. By exploring the Long Island Serial Killer and the horrifying tale of The Butcher Baker, these films attempt to tackle a serious pattern long observed within the American justice system: the dismal treatment of marginalised groups, often called the less dead.
Many of the most prolific serial killers in history targeted minorities simply because the odds were stacked in favour of the privileged figure, commonly a white man, over a sex worker, a black person or members of the LGBTQI+ community. Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, confessed to the astounding number of 71 murders and was convicted of 49, making him the second most prolific serial killer in the United States. Ridgway’s victims were mainly sex workers or vulnerable women, many of them young runaways. Other famous serial murderers that targeted sex workers include Robert Pickton, Joel Rifkin and Peter Sutcliffe, who famously declared that “the voice of God had sent him on a mission to kill prostitutes”.
There are several aspects of Robert Hansen’s murder spree that promptly turned the story into a juicy media bait: Hansen owned a local bakery and was an active member of the community, he had a wife and children who were completely unaware of his crimes and – above all – there was a rumour the avid hunter used his own private aeroplane to release victims into the wild Alaskan forests, hunting them down as soon as they tried to escape his terror. Hansen’s cruelty disguised by all-American normalcy earned him the nickname The Butcher Baker.
In The Frozen Ground, not much is seen of Hansen per se. Director Scott Walker chooses to focus on the relationship between Cindy Paulson and Sergeant Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage), who serves as an amalgamation of several officers involved in the original investigation. Characteristically Cage, Halcombe is a deep-voiced, manly investigator with a troubled past aptly used to build an emotional bridge with the victim. He is the exception to the rule, the one who believes an underage sex worker accusing a man of rape and attempted murder. Every single detail employed on the portrayal of his character, from the dialogue to the lighting, feeds into the cliché.
The portrait of Paulson is just as shallow and misconstrued as Halcombe’s, but not only is she far from a fully formed character, every single one of her choices is either a way to justify the police’s scepticism or a narrative device harnessed to lead the story back to the hero path followed by the Sergeant. The only thing The Frozen Ground does competently is failing the Bechdel Test.
Change is a long, often flawed process
Whilst the aforementioned feature focuses on the standard Hollywood procedure of building a hero out of a law enforcement agent, Lost Girls explores the feelings of guilt and accountability felt by the family members of young women who go onto sex work. Mari Gilbert, fiercely portrayed by Amy Ryan, not only has to cope with the idea of losing one of her three daughters (in real life, Gilbert had a fourth daughter, who is not portrayed here) but also needs to repeatedly defend herself from the judgement of authority figures who have no knowledge of her personal history or the struggles of a working-class single mother, in particular one who needs to care for children suffering from a mental health condition.
Two out of Mari’s three daughters are diagnosed with mental disorders. Shannan, the eldest, is bipolar and Sarra, the youngest, schizophrenic. Unable to provide the care Shannan required, Mari placed her firstborn in the hands of the State when she was a little girl. Shannan’s disappearance happens at the same time Sarra’s symptoms worsen, adding yet another strain to the chaotic household Mari cannot seem to be able to keep from crumbling. Lost Girls spends a considerable amount of time exploring the dynamics between the Gilberts, reversing the roles of carer and dependant and questioning the many ways in which motherhood is romanticised.
Lost Girls is far from refined in its criticism of the treatment of sex workers; however, there is much to be appreciated in its decision of prioritising the families over the standard glorification of law enforcement so lovingly adopted by Hollywood and shamelessly done in The Frozen Ground. Whilst Halcombe only sits down with one of the family members for a brief moment, Mari Gilbert tirelessly chases the ones responsible for solving her daughter’s case, giving the police no other choice but to listen.
The importance of the director’s voice
Other families affected by the Long Island Serial Killer also have the screen time to share details regarding their loved ones and the plethora of characteristics that defined who they were, information the media and the police repeatedly chose to ignore, portraying them only through what they did for a living. There is a staggering difference in the sensibility with which the victims are seen in both films. Lost Girls undoubtedly benefited from having a woman in charge of telling a story about… well, women. Oscar-nominated director Liz Garbus graciously navigates the murky waters of true crime, ensuring Shannan Gilbert was always Shannan Gilbert, not just victim number x.
‘The police failed us, they failed every single one of our girls, they failed to keep them safe when they were at risk. They failed to take their disappearances seriously, and they failed to go after the people who took advantage of our girls. Some of them may even be those people (…) Why are our girls to blame at the exclusion of everybody else?’
Lost Girls – source: Netflix
It is at their endings that the difference in the approach chosen by the two films feels most prominent. Whilst Walker offers the viewer a glimpse into the triumphant post-conviction state of Halcombe, Garbus turns her camera to Mari once again, allowing her to fully express not only her grief but also the brutal realization that the police will never see her daughter the way she fought for her to be seen. There is no justice, only never-ending loss.
What is your favourite true crime film of all-time? Share your thoughts and comments!
The Frozen Ground and Lost Girls are both available on Netflix.
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