Released on Hulu today, ‘Boston Strangler’ faces the pressure of being both a true crime story and a crusading journalist narrative, which have been brought to screens in compelling and memorable form by stories such as Netflix’s ‘Mindhunter’ and ‘Spotlight’. We bring up those two titles in particular, because this new movie comes across as a mash-up of both, even if it’s not quite playing on their level.
What’s the story of ‘Boston Strangler’
One of the most infamous crime cases in history, the story of the Boston Strangler has already inspired several movies and TV series. Between 1962 and 1964, more than a dozen single women, ranging in age from 19 to 85, were killed in the Boston area, all of them strangled, their bodies posed provocatively by a mysterious attacker who came to be known as the “Boston Strangler.”
Although convicted sex offender Alberto DeSalvo confessed to the crimes, there was no physical evidence tying him to the victims; he instead received a life sentence for a separate series of rapes and sexual assaults and was stabbed to death in prison years after his conviction. Speculation remains whether he was the sole perpetrator of the Strangler murders — decades later, the case is the subject of widespread fascination for many armchair sleuths and true-crime aficionados.
Written and directed by Matt Ruskin, ‘Boston Strangler’ follows Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley), a reporter for the Record-American newspaper, who becomes the first journalist to connect the murders.
When we first meet her, Loretta is assigned to the lifestyle section, she pushes to do more crime reporting, even as her hard-bitten bosses think she’s not up to the job. Early stumbles don’t help with that impression, but she’s soon making progress.
As the mysterious killer claims more and more victims and fear spreads across the city, Loretta attempts to continue her investigation alongside colleague and confidante Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), yet the duo finds themselves stymied by the rampant sexism of the era.
Nevertheless, McLaughlin and Cole bravely pursue the story at great personal risk, putting their own lives on the line in their quest to uncover the truth.
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What works about ‘Boston Strangler’?
Ruskin, no stranger to true crime tales after ‘Crown Heights’ and a wealth of documentary experience, brings a sure touch to the new movie, which does convincingly follow in the footsteps of ‘Zodiac’ and other serial killer thrillers.
Knightley and Coon of course bring great performances to the central roles, convincingly embodying women who are battling their bosses and trying to juggle family life even as they dig into the complicated case.
Unlike, say, the recent ‘She Said’, which slightly suffered from showing the journalists digging into a case that was largely in the past, ‘Boston Strangler’ –– despite its period setting –– throws you right into the heart of the case as the murders are still happening, and the two women are under threat even as they work to find the truth.
And that 1960s setting also means that the difficulties the pair face in convincing anyone to take them seriously are deeper and more shocking when viewed through today’s lens. When you have cops falsely claiming that a journalist was flirting with one of their officers to get information, you know the stakes are higher than just dealing with the crime.
Refreshingly, Ruskin doesn’t shy away from the divisions that crept in between the two as the case continued, as their differing ideas on the investigation began to drag them apart (though they still remained friends afterwards). And despite a clear passion for their work, he crafts the characters as fallible humans, not just crusading angels.
Around the central pair, the writer/director also builds a classy ensemble of veterans including Chris Cooper as editor Jack MacLaine, the man who reluctantly gives McLaughlin her shot at the crime desk. He’s a boozy, old school newspaper man who has connections to the cops that she’s frustrating but finds it within himself to back her when he realizes that she’s truly on to something.
There’s also the likes of Alessandro Nivola as driven cop Detective Conley, who figures out that it’s better to work with McLaughlin rather than stonewall her, and Bill Camp as Commissioner McNamara, who resents her stories painting his department in a bad light, however true it might be.
Are there problems with the movie?
One major issue with the film late on is the pace, which slackens noticeably even as it should be ramping up. True, Ruskin is largely bound by the true story –– which can be both a blessing and a curse when you’re trying to make a compelling movie.
Part of the frustration of this case, with none of the authorities able to pin down a suspect (and being massively negligent when it comes to digging into the case) translates to the screen as the story starts to drag a little.
And Knightley, while breathing convincing life into McLaughlin, manages an American accent, but it’s not one you’d quite describe as “Bostonian” (especially given the real McLaughlin was born in Massachusetts) and it stands out even more given the accents around her (Coon, for example, sounds convincingly like she comes from the area). But it’s not a huge issue as you’re too busy following the journalists’ story.
Though it’s a shame that Disney decided to put the movie on to Hulu rather than giving it a shot in theaters, you can see why it might be considered a risk –– unless you have the likes of David Fincher aboard, there’s a chance audiences won’t show up for such a dark, moody thriller in an age of giant franchise movies.
Ably telling its story with just a few issues of its own, ‘Boston Strangler’ is a worthy addition to the genre blending journalism and crime.
‘Boston Strangler’ receives 8 out of 10 stars.