Saturday, February 22, 2020

Sundance ’20: Lost Girls & Mole Agent

Hitchcock loved putting average everymen into breakneck thrillers. To a large extent, that is what happens to the three protagonists of three standout films for mystery thriller fans that premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. They also happen to be stories grounded in reality, but the circumstances of each are vastly different.

One of the best films of any genre at this year’s Sundance was Dominic Cooke’s Ironbark, which featured the festival’s most classically Hitchcockian hero, Greville Wynne, the real-life British businessman who was recruited to make contact with a highly-placed Soviet mole, as an amateur spy, completely unaware of the greater stakes involved. Full review here.

Liz Garbus’s Lost Girls is also directly based on a true story, but rather than playing a grand game of espionage, Mari Gilbert finds herself in a harrowing nightmare when her daughter Shannan disappears, presumably because she is another victim of the Long Island Serial Killer (a.k.a. Craig’s List Killer). Based on Robert Kolker’s well-received true crime account, Lost Girls follows Gilbert’s campaign to shame the Suffolk County police in to conducting a more thorough investigation, as well as her own free-lance efforts.

The problem is the cops on the case are not particularly motivated to investigate the serial murder of prostitutes like Shannan, nor are they inclined to dig too deeply in the gated community where she was last seen. The fact that the victims came from families decidedly on the lower end of the socio-economic and educational spectrums does not help either. Mari Gilbert is the roughest of family-support group, but she is also the toughest. Police Commissioner Richard Dormer starts to grudgingly respect her, so he might even start pushing the investigation a little.

In many ways, the Craig’s List killings were similar to Robert Pickton’s prostitute murders depicted in Rachel Talay’s On the Farm, but at least the Vancouver serial killer was eventually brought to justice. The Long Island murders remain unsolved, which necessarily implies an unsatisfying conclusion for Lost Girls. Yet, Amy Ryan’s withering intensity as Gilbert and the world-weary sadness Gabriel Byrne brings to Dormer still make Lost Girls deeply compelling. In fact, screenwriter Michael Werwie manages to shape the material into a surprisingly suspenseful narrative, while Garbus nicely balances the socially conscious anger with gritty procedural elements.

Mr. Sergio is sort of a spy like Wynne, but he is even more ordinary than Gilbert. He also happens to be a spry 83-years-old, which makes him the perfect candidate to go undercover as a nursing home resident in Maite Alberdi’s Chilean documentary, The Mole Agent.

Ironically, Sergio’s loving family is very much a part of his life, so they are conflicted about his upcoming stint in the old folks home. However, he hopes his assignment will help take his mind off the relatively recent death of his dearly beloved wife. Romulo, the private detective who hired him, has a client who suspects the home is abusing and stealing from her mother. It will be Sergio’s job to keep an eye on her. Yet, the rather grouchy “target” is probably the only resident who is not immediately charmed by him, at least among the women (“Mr. Sergio, such a gentleman,” they cluck).

Much to Romulo’s frustration, Sergio is not nearly as tech-savvy as he let on. The gentlemanly mole is also far too prone to let himself get distracted by the home’s social life. Nevertheless, he will stick with his assignment and eventually sleuth out some answers.

It should not be too spoilery to suggest there is not a lot of ruthless villainy going on in the home. From what we can see, they look like they might be somewhat short staffed, but everyone working at the Catholic facility seems to be caring professionals (so no diocese scandal here). In terms of intrigue, The Mole Agent is a minor trifle, but its wistful charm could make a sleeper hit, much in the vein of the surprise success of the Korean doc, My Love Don’t Cross that River.

In fact, the sweet old ladies are right: Mr. Sergio is charming. As he takes an increasingly protective interest in them, the film becomes ever so bittersweet. Honestly, this could be the most commercial film set in a Chilean nursing home you’ve ever seen in your life. It is a nice little lark for caper fans, but Ironbark and Lost Girls are gripping films, featuring big-name stars who disappear into their roles. All three are recommended, following their Sundance premieres. The Mole Agent next screens as the closing selection of this year’s New Directors/New Films and Lost Girls opens March 13 at the Quad, but this year’s Sundance Film Festival was the place to see them first.