Film Review – Boston Strangler
The title of Boston Strangler (2023) references a series of murders that took place in the early to mid 1960s. However, it also operates as a sort of red herring. Yes, the film revolves around the manhunt of those responsible for killing over a dozen women in the Boston area during that time. Upon further examination, it is also about the culture of the era – the social and political climate that surrounded both the investigation and why it created such a firestorm. This takes the true crime element and reconfigures it as a study of gender dynamics, the balance between the police and media, and the determination of those working to crack the case. The result is a glossy, handsomely made production that has more on its mind than its central villain.
Written and directed by Matt Ruskin, the focus hovers around the reporters that first broke the story of the “Boston Strangler.” Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightly) and Jean Cole (Carrie Coon) worked for the newspaper Record American. The fact that they were women created a strange fascination given who the victims were. They had to navigate a sea of misogyny – from editors and publishers who wanted them to stick to lifestyle and beauty stories, authorities unwilling to provide help, and a public who became more engrossed with them as opposed to their work. Early on, we see McLaughlin and Cole having their pictures taken and added to their column, which was not a normal practice. Their bosses were willing to take advantage of them as women to maintain readership.
Naturally, this would create tension in the workplace and at home, and that is where Ruskin puts most of his efforts. The plot has a cyclical nature, going between McLaughlin and Cole pursuing leads and the stress happening within their families. Oddly, this is mainly centered on McLaughlin. Being less experienced than her partner, McLaughlin launches headfirst into her work. Keira Knightly adds the right amount of gusto to the character, making us believe that she can get what she needs by simply not taking “No” for an answer. But she exudes so much energy in the story that it causes problems within her family. Every scene with her husband (Morgan Spector) gets progressively worse. His support starts to waver as she misses family functions and other responsibilities. It’s a story we have seen before, but the writing, direction, and performances give it enough life to be believable.
Sadly, Jean Cole is regulated to a secondary role, which is a shame because she is an equally interesting character, if not more so. Carrie Coon makes Cole the jaded, experienced journalist. She has clawed her way up the ladder, understands the ins and outs of their business and has all the right connections. Cole can get to places McLaughlin cannot – she knows the tricks of the trade and that has given her a level of influence. Unfortunately, the character development we see from McLaughlin is missing with Cole. Cole’s scenes routinely have her nudging her partner in the right direction – either pointing to a piece of evidence or coming up with a name that turns out to be beneficial. We get nothing of her background, the kind of sacrifices she made, or the toll her job has put on her family. She exists merely as a backup to McLaughlin.
Stylistically, Ruskin borrows heavily from David Fincher, specifically Zodiac (2007). It’s an understandable connection since Fincher’s film was also about a serial killer and the journalists working to uncover their identity. However, the parallels are so blatant that it ends up being a detriment to Boston Strangler. The production design, tone, lighting, deep shadows – Ruskin borrows so many cues from Zodiac that it could be cinematic karaoke.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with filmmakers borrowing from the past, it happens all the time. But here the similarities are so strong that it doesn’t allow Ruskin’s film to have an identity of its own. Scenes are lifted almost beat for beat, without much variation. A shot of mail getting delivered to the newsroom is a near replica. A scene involving a character confronting someone in a scary basement is too obvious to ignore. This may not matter for those who have not seen Zodiac. For those that have, it’s hard not to compare the two in terms of visual execution.
Ruskin avoids the trap that comes with true crime stories – the urge to sensationalize the grisly details of the murders. Filmmakers can sometimes get too caught up in the shock and awe of the crimes that they lose the human story. That is not the case here. The narrative lays out all the pieces of evidence to make the case intriguing and easy to follow, without sinking into the depravity of the actual criminal acts. More importantly, the production shows how McLaughlin and Cole’s situation came with high risk. This doesn’t just mean at risk of a potential killer, but with a newspaper reluctant to ruffle any feathers and detectives whose every move was under the public’s microscope. It’s a line of dominoes all on the precipice of getting toppled over. McLaughlin and Cole must walk on eggshells with their reporting – any wrong decision can put their careers and lives at stake.
While its style overly relies on what has worked in the past, Boston Strangler still operates as an efficient, well produced crime drama. We can appreciate it for its intriguing mystery, but also as a piece of smart social commentary. No, it doesn’t subvert the familiar components of its given genre, but it does just enough to make for a worthy entry.