It’s a testament to how arid contemporary cinema is when it comes to adult-oriented drama that Boston Strangler feels old-fashioned. Thrilling crime procedurals used to people the cinematic landscape with regularity, even just this century brought us standout examples like Zodiac and Prisoners, but as character-driven dramas were driven from theaters by bigger, gaudier franchise films, the crime procedural slipped away, overtaken by the too frequently bloated limited series format on streaming and prestige cable channels. That it is NOT an eight-episode series is Boston Strangler’s greatest strength, at a relatively spared 112 minutes it feels almost like a revelation to watch a crime drama unfold in just under two hours.
Though the temptation to compare Strangler to Spotlight is strong, given the shared Boston setting and focus on journalists as protagonists, Strangler actually owes most of its DNA to David Fincher’s seminal Zodiac, a procedural film that only gets better with each passing year. Written and directed by Matt Ruskin (Crown Heights), Strangler starts, like Zodiac, with a murder. Unlike Zodiac, though, Ruskin totally fails to humanize the victims fleetingly revived for film and given the misogynistic nature of the real Boston Strangler’s—or Stranglers’—crimes, that leaves an after-image of misogyny on Strangler, like a faultily developed Polaroid. It is certainly not what anyone intended, but it is the primary trap of true crime, to lose empathy with the victims in the rush of recreation.
Strangler focuses on Loretta McLaughlin, played by a prim, borderline dour Keira Knightley. Loretta is a woman in journalism in the early 1960s, relegated to testing toasters for the lifestyle section even as she keeps a “scoops” board in the newsroom, passive-aggressively taking her male co-workers to task for failing to break major crime stories around Boston. Her doggedness pays off, though, when she links four murders across the city, identifying a serial killer before that term has even entered the lexicon. Her crusty editor, Jack (Chris Cooper), lets her pursue her lead on her own time and dime, which she does, and the result is a breaking story about a “mad strangler” attacking single women in the city (Loretta later dubs the killer “the Boston Strangler”).
Predictably, though, the cops who talked to her turn on her, and try to paint her as an unethical flirt. To maintain credibility, Jack brings in a more seasoned lady reporter, Jean Cole (Carrie Coon). Loretta is resentful, Jean is skeptical, but any interesting friction between these women is rapidly quashed in the name of moving on to the next murder. Ruskin does not stage the attacks in full view of the camera, though the aftermath is depicted, and brutal crime scene photos are splashed around for effect. The fascination in Strangler is with the crimes, not the people. This is the film’s besetting sin, especially since Knightley and Coon do a solid job portraying women figuring out how to succeed in a male-dominated industry, in a male-dominated era, on the fly. Jean is hard-edged and flinty, Loretta slowly morphs into a relentless investigator who earns the trust of just enough people to make her job tenable.
There are interesting threads presented throughout the film, from Loretta and Jean’s initially spiky relationship, to the too-cozy relationship between Loretta’s paper, the Boston Record American, and the Boston Police Department. After linking the crimes, Loretta moves on to showing how complacency and a lack of professional cooperation between jurisdictions is slowing down, even damaging, the investigation into the strangling deaths. She is incensed that the editor in chief would protect the police when they’re failing so badly but speechifying about “failing the women of Boston” is virtually meaningless in a film that is so disinterested in the actual lives of women. It’s impossible not to wonder what a filmmaker like Marielle Heller or Lorene Scafaria would do with this material, the myriad ways a woman could peer into the lives of these women both breaking stories and glass ceilings, never mind how differently they might treat the victims.
On the one hand, it’s great to see a crime procedural as a feature film and not an overlong series, on the other hand, Boston Strangler is no Zodiac. It lacks empathy, humanity, and insight, and strands Knightley and Coon in a dry retelling of a famously frustrating serial killer case (there may or may not have been more than one perpetrator, we’ll probably never know). All the pieces are present, but the way they line up is dissatisfying, like a Lean Cuisine pretending to be a home cooked meal. The performances are fine—Alessandro Nivola pops as a burnt-out detective who trades homicide for Hollywood—and the film looks good enough (with cinematography by Ben Kutchins), but its lacking empathy or anything interesting to say about the women who hounded the Boston Strangler(s) into the light dooms Boston Strangler to mediocrity.
Boston Strangler is now streaming on Hulu in the US and Disney+ in Canada.