Directed by: Matt Ruskin
Premise: Based on true events. Newspaper reporters Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole (Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon) investigate a pattern of murders and critique the response by the Boston police.
What Works: The Boston Strangler case is unusual among serial killer stories. The details of the murders and the list of suspects evades some of the usual facets of high-profile serial killer phenomena. The case is fascinating and the 2023 film escorts the audience through the particulars of the Boston Strangler murders from the point of view of two newspaper reporters whose coverage of the killings drove the investigation. The filmmakers navigate a lot of material and plenty of leads in a way that makes for an engrossing mystery. This particular case has a lot of unseemly details which are mostly handled tastefully without diluting the subject matter. Framing the story around the efforts of Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole makes sense gives this story’s approach. Boston Strangler is about the dangers women face but not just the threat of serial murder. The female reporters cope with sexism in the newsroom and harassment in the street and the Boston police fail to protect the women of the city. Boston Strangler has an atmosphere of violence and dread and it is a specifically and appropriately gendered fear. The filmmakers create a sense of imminent peril that colors the way women go through the world.
What Doesn’t: Boston Strangler consists of a lot of elements we’ve seen in other serial killer dramas. This film owes a lot to David Fincher’s serial killer projects especially Zodiac which is the gold standard of this kind of true crime serial killer procedural. Boston Strangler imitates the visual style of Zodiac but it is frequently inferior. The imagery is consistently dark and murky with the action hard to distinguish. McLaughlin visits the home of a suspect in a scene that is almost exactly the same as an equivalent sequence in Zodiac. Like a lot of police and journalism procedurals, Boston Strangler also features a domestic subplot in which the case consumes McLaughlin’s time and comes between the journalist and her husband. While this detail is true the filmmakers treat this subplot perfunctorily; it plays as a series of scenarios we’ve seen before. Jean Cole is mostly left on the periphery of the story. She doesn’t get much depth nor does she have a life outside of work. We’re told that these women developed a close friendship but there’s not much sense of that here which is a shame given the way their cooperative relationship parallels that of the suspects.
Disc extras: Available on Hulu.
Bottom Line: Boston Strangler dramatizes this infamous murder case in a way that hews fairly close to history while telling a compelling mystery. The filmmakers lean on cinematic and storytelling clichés and the film never escapes the impression that we’ve seen this before.
Episode: #942 (April 2, 2023)