1968 saw the release of The Boston Strangler, a crime film loosely based on the real-life serial killer at the center of 13 still-unresolved slayings earlier that same decade. The notion of producing a movie so close to real events that were still under investigation divided audiences and critics alike; Roger Ebert opined, “This film, which was made so well, should not have been made at all.” Decades after the events, we now have Boston Strangler, a much more level-headed procedural about the pair of intrepid reporters who initially connected the murders. But just because this is more responsible in how it depicts the case doesn’t mean it’s not engrossing on its own terms. Like Zodiac, another quietly terrifying film about an unsolved murder spree in the 1960s, this movie gets us thoroughly involved with the characters first before the mystery takes hold.
Keira Knightley stars as Loretta McLaughlin, a columnist for the Boston Record American who is limited to covering “lifestyle topics” that her snippy editor Jack MacLaine (Chris Cooper) thinks would interest bored housewives. Eager to move beyond reviewing the latest toaster from Sunbeam, she bends the ear of fellow reporter Jean Cole (Carrie Coon) to figure out how she is able to tackle more meaningful subjects. Spotting a similarity between two murders within the same month, McLaughlin senses a pattern emerging and uses her newspaper credentials to lean on the police for information. After more elderly women in the area are strangled, McLaughlin recruits Cole to develop coverage around the elusive figure they dub the “Boston Phantom”, even while doing so puts their lives at risk.
Writer/director Matt Ruskin has a few projects under his belt, most recently before this with 2017 crime drama Crown Heights, but Boston Strangler seems to be the biggest productions he’s led so far. His latest effort has the sort of formal rigor that you’d want from a film about people working hard to put an end to a killing spree. It’s handsomely shot, it’s tightly edited and it packs plenty of subtext into the serial killer tale we’ve seen quite often in the past. The sexism of the era factors heavily into how McLaughlin and Cole were able to pursue the assignment in the first place and also informs the dismissive treatment they often received from law enforcement. Last year’s She Said, which also featured two reporters investigating a major story, deals with modern-day sexual politics much more bluntly but serves as a fitting companion piece about rising above implicit and explicit gender discrimination.
Through voiceover narration, Boston Strangler wisely includes excerpts from articles that McLaughlin actually wrote to convey the progression of the breaking news. Not only was she a groundbreaking journalist but she was also a compelling storyteller, crafting prose that was true to the facts while also being effortlessly absorbing at the same time. Ruskin goes for a similar approach, responsibly relaying an impressive amount of detail around the murders while including flavor about the toll that chasing this killer had on those doing the chasing. A pair of nicely juxtaposed scenes set outside of different residences suggest that as McLaughlin gazes into the abyss, the abyss gazes back into her.
Though Knightley is a fine lead, it’s a bit curious that she goes with a more “standard” American dialect as opposed to the Boston accent that Woburn native McLaughlin likely had. While I wasn’t expecting a full-on The Departed level of “r-dropping”, other ensemble players like Alessandro Nivola and Bill Camp at least try to evoke the region’s dialect in their performances. Regardless, Ruskin gets fine work out of his cast overall and does everything he can to make this true story register with his audience. As Boston-set journalism movies go, Boston Strangler isn’t quite on the level of Spotlight but it gets much closer than you may expect from a direct-to-streaming thriller.
Score – 3.5/5
More movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Shazam! Fury of the Gods, a superhero sequel starring Zachary Levi and Helen Mirren which continues the story of a teenager and his foster siblings who must transform into their superpowered adult alter egos to fight the Daughters of Atlas.
Streaming on Netflix is The Magician’s Elephant, an animated family film starring Noah Jupe and Mandy Patinkin following a boy on the search for his long-lost sister with the help of a mysterious elephant and the magician who will conjure it.
Streaming on MGM+ is There’s Something Wrong With The Children, a horror movie starring Alisha Wainwright and Zach Gilford about a couple who takes a weekend trip with longtime friends and their two young kids, the latter of whom begin to behave strangely after disappearing into the woods overnight.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup