Directed by: Matt Ruskin
Distributed by: Hulu
Written by Patrick Hao
Matt Ruskin’s “Boston Strangler” seemingly has two goals in mind. First, to capture the trend of the true crime genre, a bonafide hit in every conceivable entertainment medium these days. Second, to convey a “girl boss” empowering narrative in line with films like “She Said.” In attempting both, “Boston Strangler” succeeds at neither, delivering a dry journalist procedural that is neither tense nor illuminating.
The setting is 1960s Boston when a series of murders with similar MOs begin popping up throughout the city. Each of these women were strangled with stockings tied around their neck and assaulted. The police however are unwilling to alert the public to the possibility of a serial killer until Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) of the Boston Record American begins noticing the patterns. The movie follows McLaughlin, and fellow journalist Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), as they investigate the story while facing rampant sexism doubting their prowess, and trying to balance the traditional notion of women’s role in their home lives.
Surrounding Knightley is a variable who’s who of great character actors. Chris Cooper is the newspaper editor wanting to get the story right. Alessandro Nivola, Bill Camp, and Rory Cochrane play detectives trying to curb public fears and sentiment while also trying to capture the killer. Morgan Spector plays McLaughlin’s understanding but frazzled husband and David Dastmalchian is coldly sinister as a potential suspect.
Yet, despite the pedigree, “Boston Strangler” is a cold movie. Underlying the problem is the lack of conviction in what the film wants to do with its narrative. Knightley as the real-life McLaughlin is often let down by the screenplay and direction as she searches for something to latch on to. The film is not interested in what actually makes her obsessed with these murders. Sure there is lip service for protecting the women of the city and just proving she can handle substantive journalism. But, the crux of the obsession is never satisfyingly explored. Rather, the film is seemingly more concerned with McLaughlin as a symbol against sexism, but there is no character beneath that. By the time the climax takes place, there is no sense of how these events have affected McLaughlin.
There is not even a full commitment to the idea of corruption within the police willing to do anything to pin the killer on someone. It’s irresponsible to introduce the multiple killer theory if the film was not going to give the audience a good reason to believe in it there’s no connective tissue beyond conjecture and barely there thematic relevance. The film is as cold as a newspaper article, relaying facts in chronological order as dryly as possible.
As a film about a serial killer, Ruskin is never able to convey the fear that has stricken the city. We cut to some of the murders taking place, but it never reaches the tension of something like David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” the film that this has been compared to the most. These scenes play out like “America’s Most Wanted” style recreations rather than something cinematic. This is another film that really identifies the importance of a great director because Ruskin is unable to pull any subtext from the serviceable screenplay. It wants to be “Zodiac” or “Silence of the Lambs” so badly but does not have the verisimilitude in filmic voice to be something other than a pale imitation.
“Boston Strangler” Trailer