Well intentioned, but narratively and stylistically limp, writer-director Matt Ruskin’s crime drama Boston Strangler brings no new ideas of its own to the overcrowded true crime inspired genre. Based on the true story of the female journalists who broke the news about a serial killer stalking the streets of their city in the mid-1960s, Boston Strangler is a beige and grey looking procedural, devoid of genuine suspense or drama; stuck between wanting to be a traditional narrative about catching a mass murderer and women being underestimated by a patriarchal, sexist power structure. Both could exist together under the right conditions, but Boston Strangler can’t nail the tone of either thread with any degree of conviction or originality.
Record American reporter Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) has grown tired of writing puff piece geared towards female readers, and is desperate to branch out into more serious journalism. Loretta keeps pressing her boss (Chris Cooper) into letting her look into a trio of murders she thinks might be connected because the means of death and staging of the bodies are similar. Once it appears that Loretta might be onto something (and aggravating all the right people in the process), she’s paired up with undercover investigative reporter Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), a woman who has thicker skin and more experience with difficult stories. Together, they put their own lives in danger to uncover a clear pattern of violence that could reach beyond the city of Boston and points towards a trio of potential suspects.
The case depicted in Boston Strangler is one of those that’s more fascinating and complex in reality than it is depicted on screen. It’s a complicated topic, full of confirmed facts, plenty of educated guesses, conspiracy theories, dropped balls, incompetent blunders, and plenty of real life fear, sadness, and unresolved traumas. Ruskin’s approach is quite cut and dry: there’s a killer and no one is doing anything about it, so two people take it upon themselves to bring the darkness into the light. It’s a reductive approach, but it could’ve worked if the darkness was actually present outside of some low grade, punch pulling exploitation and if anyone here was presented as a fully fleshed out and interesting character.
When it comes to the serial killer aspect of Boston Strangler, Ruskin (Crown Heights, Booster) settles for a tonally and stylistically lighter version of David Fincher’s Zodiac. That was also a film about investigation and a prolific serial killer who constantly outsmarted their pursuers, but it was also rich in atmosphere, character, period detail, and a genuine love for the craft brought to the case by those doing the investigating. Here, the budget is decisively cheaper, the lighting and cinematography are adequate at best, and period detail is largely replaced by settings that are often so drab that they could credibly fit into any era with ease. There are some brief sequences where the unseen killer stalks and attacks, but they’re handled almost like superfluous, sleazy filler; like there wouldn’t be anything else to show on screen otherwise in those moments.
When it comes to the journalistic aspects of Boston Strangler, Ruskin’s film bears a striking structural resemblance to the recently released She Said, which took a look at two female reporters trailing a path of destruction left by a different sort of predator in a more contemporary setting. That’s meant somewhat as a compliment, and not just because it’s highly unlikely Ruskin would be actively channeling a movie that was in production around the exact same time as this. The story of the reporters chasing leads, talking to victims, and pushing back against top brass and the Boston PD officers who wish they would let all of this go is much more interesting than the handling of the serial killer narrative.
Even then, the results aren’t perfect. Boston Strangler succeeds in its better moments because Knightley and Coon are trying their absolute best with a script that gives them little. Knightley is convincing as a woman who wants to be taken seriously at work (as well as home, where she’s seen as an ungrateful homemaker), and the always reliable Coon delivers another memorable performance as a consummate professional who can report circles around anyone lucky or unlucky enough to come into her orbit. But despite the obvious differences in the approaches of these characters, their relationship as colleagues never fully gels because they aren’t well defined as human beings. They’re merely archetypes designed to get the movie’s message of female empowerment across.
Please note that the actual message isn’t the problem. There’s a lot of fun and outrage to be had from watching men getting all pissy that the ladies in their lives can’t perform their “womanly duties” or stay in their lanes (except for a well cast and utilized Alessandro Nivola’s more progressive and helpful homicide detective). The message of empowerment at home and in the workplace is great, and one that better films have told with more conviction. But in Boston Strangler, all we know about Loretta and Jean are that they are women investigating a killer that attacks other women. The best scenes in the film come whenever one of the reporters sits to talk with other women about their personal connections to the case, but these aren’t deep characters. One is a novice. The other is a veteran. They’re both looked down upon because they’re women. And that’s about it. That lack of depth makes the few moments of brutal (and almost always off-screen) violence against women seem all the more exploitative. I suppose it’s better than giving the characters no discernible traits at all, but not by much. Boston Strangler feels forced, hollow, and thin as a result.
But mostly, Boston Strangler is a film that’s basic to the point of boredom. It’s a strong idea for a film that has had almost everything that makes it interesting in the first place drained from it. It wastes rich history and a strong cast by approaching thin material from a workmanlike, pedestrian point of view. Instead of being bloody, thrilling, seedy, empowering, or even clinical in its approach, Boston Strangler settles for an unsatisfying middle ground that services nothing.
Boston Strangler streams on Disney+ in Canada and on Hulu elsewhere starting Friday, March 17, 2023.
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