Serial killers have long been a subject ripe for picking for dark yet intriguing Hollywood productions. Done right, they expose the dark side of human nature and the perseverance of the human condition. The protagonist often isn’t fighting to survive, they are fighting for what’s right, for the truth. In the case of true crime stories, the story might also find the pulse of the cultural norms of the time. Matt Ruskin‘s Boston Strangler manages to do all that, yet the pacing and stakes never reach a crescendo. Instead, the movie recreates a dark time in the nation’s history when women were victims in the headlines but didn’t write them.
Boston Strangler is about real-life reporter Loretta McLaughlin. She became the first reporter to connect a series of murders in 1960s Boston through similar circumstances. She concluded a serial killer was on the loose. Her reporting led detectives through a series of suspects. Along the way, she ruffles the feathers of the district attorney and the Boston Police Department as her story sheds light on the incompetency of the force. Aiding the greenhorn is Jean Cole, a veteran reporter who helps McLaughlin navigate sexism and stereotypes plaguing society.
The cast is led by Keira Knightley, portraying McLaughlin, and employing a fine American accent. Knightley brings determination and strength to the role, which captivates throughout. Carrie Coon, meanwhile, is Cole and serves as a friend and mentor to McLaughlin. Though not given much to do besides serving as a mentor, Coon’s straightforward approach helps offset Knightley’s gung-ho intensity. Filling out the cast are Chris Cooper, Alessandro Nivola, and David Dastmalchian as one of the prime suspects. The film’s focus on the reporters leaves very little for the male cast to contribute. Cooper, in particular, brings little as the head of the newsroom. This is not a detriment however. This is Knightley and Coon’s show. Ruskin wisely makes them the central focus.
Unlike most modern adaptations of true crime stories, the focus here is not on the killer himself. The focus is wisely left on McLaughlin and her quest for the truth. In this way, the film calls to mind David Fincher’s fantastic Zodiac. This approach prevents the long-standing tradition in Hollywood of glorifying violence and humanizing the killer. The film does not depict the murders. Instead, the director frames them through the reporter’s perspective after the fact, at part of a crime scene. In general, a reporter is not a part of the story. Any meaningful action is reactionary, the thrills secondhand.
The script feebly attempts to add suspense by other means, but the threads rarely go anywhere. Instead, we get a few scenes of heated disagreements between McLaughlin and her husband, a scene where she confronts a suspect before quickly fleeing, and one chilling scene where a shadowy figure haunts her home in the night. These few scenes don’t quite mesh with the tone of the rest of the film. This results in a slightly uneven product.
The film has plenty to say and does so in a matter-of-fact manner that never seems heavy-handed. It is no surprise that women faced discrimination in and out of the workplace. Men offered support to women up until their status quo was threatened. When actually given an opportunity, women were scrutinized heavily and doubly questioned. Though set in the 1960s it is easy to see the modern-day parallels. Additionally, in our era where fake news has entered the lexicon, the blatant suppression of a story painting the police department in a negative light seems oddly familiar. However, the film’s message is muddled and will likely be overlooked by those seeking a more traditional true crime thriller.
In the end, Boston Strangler is an ambitious film that despite its 1960s setting is relevant today. Director Ruskin delivers a tense thriller where the suspense isn’t focused on the killings themselves but on the discovery of the truth and the quest of two women to share their findings. Always feeling at home in a period piece, Knightley turns one of her strongest performances. Coon meanwhile brings her easy charm to propel the film through some rocky pacing. The final result is a well-made movie with a message that, unfortunately, won’t make the headlines.